By Joel Okida

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Maybe there are two ways of getting to the essence of the blues. You could be born along the Mississippi, under a bad sign, and wind up standing at those crossroads with your guitar named Lucille. Then again, you could have dedicated your life to studying the music and playing with the musicians who generated the groundwork of the genre and thereby got under the skin of the subject. Well, Bernie Pearl isn't a denizen of the delta and as far as we know he didn't sell his soul to the devil to get him farther up the road. What he did do was commune with the blues and with many a bluesman to get to the heart of what it is and all about. True, the blues come from the African American experience, the diaspora of people who lived a life under duress and then developed a sound and lyric that reflected not only the hardship of the day, but also the comedy and error of love, work, and faith. However, communing with another's art form is also part of the American experience. And it's been said many times that the blues is a state of mind. If that's true then Bernie Pearl has had the blues on his mind and in his fret-full fingers.

On his new release, Old School Blues --- Acoustic/Electric, Pearl kindly slaps critics who have criticized his vocals while additionally reaching deep to elevate the art form as a whole. Maybe he didn't toil along the Mississippi delta, but he plays like there's muddy water percolating through his heart.

The balanced production on this recording is as solid as one could ever want in a musical form that likes its sound raw but clean, perhaps leaving the lyrics to be a bit down and dirty. This recording allows one to absorb the impact of Pearl's masterful guitar work as well as the complementary backing from his long time accompanying band members on several numbers. Just listen to Dwayne Smith hit the keys up and back of the guitar lines on You Know I Love You.

Pearl selects a choice representation of the blues in all its varied styles with a generous nod to Mance Lipscomb, Lightnin' Hopkins, and Mississippi Fred MacDowell, all mentors and associates back in the day. The menu covers the wide delta pandet but the tributaries reach out to Otis Rush, Jimmy Reed and even a subtly stunning instrumental version of gospel chestnut, I'll Fly Away.

Muddy Waters' I Be's Troubled, gets some soulful slide work. A hybrid version of this song (combined with Muddy's, I Be Bound to Write to You) has often been recorded under the title, I Just Can't be Satisfied. And whereas the foot stomping' hyper style of John Hammond and the white soul version of the Rolling Stones have their merits, this version of the original source song sings out no less triumphant.

A smoldering Rock Me Mama, a Lipscomb standard, bristles with heat both from the lyrical content and from Pearl's picking which seems to speak or echo the vocal innuendo. The electric side begins with an Hopkins tune, Automobile Blues where Pearl lays down the steamy and infectious lead guitar riffs with some meaty bass and drum support. If You Lose Your Money kicks up the rhythm with a Bo Diddley-Iko Iko beat straight out of New Orleans. Cherry Ball is another rocking swinger with the guitar getting a work out like the woman the plea goes out to in the song (Shake, Shake Mama!). Rocks and Gravel might be the classic on this CD with an insistent pulsating beat that finds Pearl doing a vocal duet with the guitar lines. A classic Lipscomb movin' on tune. Another swinging Chicago blues style take on Jimmy Reed's Baby, You Don't Have to Go catches the quartet in synch with pianist Smith tickling the runs in, out and around Pearl's stinging guitar.

Pearl has kept the spirit of the blues alive by playing, teaching, and promoting relentlessly even though the music scene has changed considerably since those early days at his old haunts, The Ash Grove. But now with R&B and soul music cycling back onto the market and with a vast army of young gunslinging blues guitarists wanting a piece of the trend, this CD should fit right in. And because Old School Blues is tantamount to a partial, yet no less concise, survey of this particular music genus, aficionados should procure a copy as both source material and for its imaginative arrangements, and novices would do well by learning from the varied spread of the delta blues and Pearl's masterful guitar licks. The bottom line really is that it's a great example of the blues no matter how you look at it. If you are going to buy just one blues CD this year, consider this one before any others.

Old School Blues can be purchased at all the usual places or through

Bernie Pearl plays at Zoey's Café in Ventura on August 28. (

Joel Okida is a struggling artist, struggling writer, and struggling musician. It occurs to him that life is all about the struggle. Fortunately, he did not take up acting. However, he's not half-bad as a zydeco dancer and the ability to make a mean gumbo and lovely walnut tortes has gotten him by.