Live From The Bell House: Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars, Big Sandy And His Fly-Rite Boys, Dennis Coffey & Syl Johnson

Martin Longley By

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Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars
The Bell House
May 28, 2011

Down in Gowanus again, a few blocks away from its toxic canal, a proximity that doesn't impair The Bell House's ability to present great music, or even discourage folks from sitting outside in the newly-arrived swelter. How charming, to be hanging out in Brooklyn's industrial quarter, quaffing Blue Point blueberry ale, and inhaling the fumes from the nearby organic bratwurst truck.

Inside, it was almost impossible to avoid the dance floor's pull, once the Refugee All-Stars began its two-hour show. Even though the audience for this Saturday night holiday-weekend gig was relatively diminished, it could boast one of the highest ratios of dancers to non-dancers, so infectious was this fusion music from Sierra Leone. Perhaps the term fusion is misleading; it's being used to illustrate that this band didn't simply play indigenous music, it was also reaching outwards to Congolese soukous, Nigerian Afrobeat and, perhaps more crucially, Jamaican ska and reggae. All of these stylistic traits were sieved through a governing band personality, so the tunes didn't sound as though they were jump-cutting impatiently. Each shifting of emphasis was seamless, and actually provided a potential for keeping the footwork varied amongst the crowd.

This band has its foundation in bad fortune, its members being literally refugees from Freetown, back in 1999. They appeared in a documentary film about their enforced situation, camped out in Guinea. They made an acclaimed album, released in 2006. They began touring the globe, ultimately becoming an outdoor summer festival hit. Now, the All-Stars are pushing another disc, Rise & Shine (Cumbancha, 2010), having evolved into a tightly ongoing concern.

This was one of the year's most compulsively danceable gigs, right from the outset. The band's guitar latticework engaged the mind, even whilst the feet were shifting beats and hitting the floor in time with periodic bomb-drops from the percussion. The reggae numbers offered some respite, but even some of those were taken at a ska-jumping pace. The combo's shared vocals also provided substantial matter for mulling over, even as the bounding and bouncing continued. Most bands will occasionally slump when attempting such extended dance action, but these All-Stars completely sustained their momentum throughout, in terms of both the heads and feet of the audience. Quite an achievement, methinks...

Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys/Eilen Jewell/Smokey's Round-Up
The Bell House
June 3, 2011

Just under a week later, the venue presented one of its three-band marathons, always a hot proposition, particularly if the acts are attuned with each other. Upon arriving at the outside tables, pre-show, it was easy to spot the opening band, as Smokey Hormel was in full Texan regalia, ten-gallon hat perched precariously on his head. Even though he's originally outta Los Angeles, this Brooklyn cowboy's Round-Up can be found playing regularly, only a few blocks away from The Bell house, at the much smaller Barbès bar in Park Slope, or at Sunny's Tavern in Red Hook.

This Bell House set was one of the group's bigger ventures, with an initially sparse crowd growing as folks arrived for what was destined to be a long evening of country-derived sounds. This was no ordinary rodeo-brawling gang. Singer/guitarist Hormel was a prince of irony, transmitting on low frequencies that inhabited the Johnny Cash regions. Hormel has enjoyed a highly diverse career, doing time with The Blasters, The Red Devils, Cibo Matto and, more recently, Forro In The Dark. The Round-Up's fiddler happened to be Charlie Burnham, normally sighted on the avant-improvising circuit, gigging with the likes of James Blood Ulmer. Sawdust-kicking Western Swing songs were delivered with virtuosic flash, and the combo benefit from their regular-residency stability. Humor of different types was central to this evening, as was a speeding instrumental dexterity.

Also closely identified with Los Angeles—though born in Boise, Idaho, and lately dwelling in Boston—singer-guitarist Eilen Jewell is another breed of country artist. Here, the humor was more subtly intertwined with her song-craft and demeanor, and Jewell's methods lay closer to the mainline troubadour tradition. She could be described as a singer-songwriter, but invariably had a Nashville twang to her tunes, blended with a garage punk sensibility, even though this might have been disguised or refracted away from the hardcore.

Jewell dealt out generous selections from Butcher Holler (Signature Sounds, 2010), an album of Loretta Lynn interpretations. This was an ideal choice for the night's middle act, as she offered the chance for a more introverted sequence of songs. That word is only being deployed due to the excessively outgoing nature of Smokey Hormel and headliner Big Sandy, who completed the evening's possibly unintended Californian theme.


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