Guitarist George Bedard has been one of the brightest stars in the Ann Arbor music firmament for nearly forty years, and the Kingpins, the trio he formed with bassist Randy Tessier and drummer Rich Dishman, has been serving as the town’s unofficial house band almost since the day they started making music together in the late eighties. Bedard’s previous CDs have reflected the range of his repertoire, which embraces virtually every form of postwar, pre-Beatles American popular music from rockabilly and honky-tonk country to jump blues and even swing jazz, but his new CD, Further On, is devoted to the blues.
It’s a live CD compiled from shows Bedard performed at Callahan’s in Auburn Hills, both with the Kingpins and with a quartet in which he and Dishman were joined by pianist Chris Codish and bassist Pat Prouty. It features covers of urban blues recordings made in the 1950s, along with originals inspired by various fifties blues styles. Of course, Bedard never really “covers” old recordings. His is the approach of jazz musicians, who always reimagine their material in ways that make it their own. Bedard finds his way into a song with his guitar, and the guitar parts he devises are simply richer than any music you’ll find on any old recording–more supple and detailed in their voicings, more attentively syncopated, more exuberantly articulated, more self-delighting. “The thing about George is, he loves it,” my wife observed when she first heard a cut from Further On. “You can tell.”
Bedard sings lead as well, but usually his guitar does most of the heavy lifting. His vocals often serve as just another instrument, a virtual faux horn section anchoring the ensemble, with the lyrics functioning like subtitles to a conversation being conducted in another language–a language in which his guitar not only is the most fluent speaker but sometimes does all the talking. Bedard has the sense not to challenge Muddy Waters’ vocal in his rendition of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” but his guitar’s regal ferocity would get even Muddy’s attention, and his handling of Little Richard’s “Slippin’ and Slidin'” quickly gets the lyric out of the way altogether to make way for a series of instrumental passages excavating the tune’s blues roots that culminates with a guitar solo as alarmingly volatile as Little Richard’s inimitable vocal.
On several cuts Bedard steps out from the shadows to duet with his guitar, a musical strategy that’s particularly suitable to the two-faced essence of the blues, which is both an expression of distress and a cure for it. Usually the guitar and vocal are given different parts: the opening cut, a version of Elmore James’ “Stranger Blues,” features a vocal that is all anxious distress set against a tomcatting guitar, while on Otis Rush’s “All Your Love” the roles are reversed. Then, on “Cold Cold Feeling,” a song made famous by T-Bone Walker, voice and guitar seem constantly to switch roles as they converse with each other, until the guitar part itself expands into what feels like a conversation between conflicting moods and emotions. The result is the most persuasive realization I have ever heard of the transformation, posited by the lyric, of a chilled into a chilling spirit.
As with his live sets, Bedard concludes his new CD with a show-stopping instrumental tour de force, a version of Elmore James’ “Hawaiian Guitar Boogie” that reminds you that the motive of syncopation is the way it invests music with the sense of a human body in motion. The guitar here, though, is a dancing god, enacting a full-body jitterbug too unimaginably grand for mere mortal dancers.
George Bedard & the Kingpins host the annual Halloween Bash at Guy Hollerin’s on Saturday, October 26.