I went to see Hank Williams: Lost Highway last week. The first sound that came from the stage wasn’t the voice of Hank or his mother or the cry of a pedal steel guitar. When the lights dimmed and the play began, it was the pure voice of Mississippi Charles Bevel that came unfaltering from the darkness. Bevel plays Tee-Tot, Williams’ mentor. The CD that this post claims to review is not new. It’s a dozen years old and I don’t recall ever hearing of it or Charles Bevel before last Wednesday.
I was quite sincere in writing that I’d never before heard of Charles Bevel but there’s a strong possibility that it’s not entirely true. I’ve not seen the Broadway show It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues but I’ve certainly heard of it. Bevel co-wrote that and starred in it so there’s a decent chance that I’ve seen his name somewhere before. On Wednesday, though, I knew nothing of Bevel’s history and was simply wowed by his voice. He wasn’t the star of the show in any normal sense but he was the cast member who impressed me the most musically and there were some fine musicians in that cast.
I made two wishes during the show and both came true. One, some of those CDs I’d seen for sale on the way in were Bevel’s and, two, he was among the cast members in the lobby collecting money for charities. Better yet, my cheap seat made me one of the last to exit and the crowd was thinning as I headed out. My reward was an autograph and a short conversation. “All the words are in there,” the singer said as he returned the signed CD, “so you can sing along.” That was my first hint that there was more to this CD and this man than just another pretty voice.
I listened to a Hank Williams CD on the drive home. When I finally listened to my new purchase a couple of days later, it was immediately obvious that this guy had some heavy-duty musicians backing him up. And with each song it became more and more apparent that he was working with some heavy-duty material, too. By the time I checked the credits, I was simply verifying what had become more than a suspicion. Behind that Wednesday night hint was the fact that Mississippi Charles Bevel had written every tune.
A closer looked at the credits revealed even more of my ignorance. More than twenty musicians appear in the credits and I didn’t recognize a one. These are not unknown musicians. They were simply unknown to me. Toss some of the names in a search engine and you’ll discover folks who have played with the likes of John Denver, Delaney & Bonnie Bramlett, The Commodores, Nora Jones, and on and on. Every performance on Not of Seasons is top-notch and maybe it’s natural to wonder how can all these people I’ve never heard of make such great music but I’m kind of used to it. There are a lot of great musicians whose names I recognize but I also know there are plenty more that I’ve so far completely missed.
It’s a big group with multiple saxophones, trumpet, trombone, and a small choir that delivers “I’m a Lover”, the upbeat opening track. Bevel actually co-wrote this song — with James Mabone — for the Staple Singers. I know it’s the saxophone that does it but Bevel’s version sounds rather Springsteenesque to me. The next tune, “Dreams”, is a little slower and just slightly exotic sounding. It made me think of early Terence Trent D’Arby and I found myself thinking of D’Arby at various other points in the CD. I don’t believe any other track equals the opener in troop size but several come close. That choir returns for three more songs and horns, various keyboards, and guitars abound. One cut has a sousaphone; Another a cello. None are gimmicks. They are there because they belong.
Bevel’s strong voice sounds great backed by a room full of musicians but it may be easier to appreciate with pared down backing. “Woman” is just him and a piano. Other tracks include little more than a guitar and/or piano.
Back in the 1970s Bevel recorded a CD for A&M but even before the big promotional tour he realized that wasn’t what he wanted. He essentially walked away to be what he wanted to be and that’s exactly what he is. And the songs on Not of Seasons are what he wants to write and what he wants to sing. Calling it blues isn’t incorrect but it’s also gospel, soul, funk, pop, and folk. The lyrics are as strong as his voice. They can be insightful.
I heard a voice speak to me
Say, come over here to the land of the free
Land of the free and the home of the brave
But I see cowards and I smell slaves
And some might make your mind swivel unexpectedly.
Lord, Jesus and sex are both friends of mine
Some are just fun.
Making love, it ain’t magic
If you don’t know what to do it can be tragic
All are delightful.
There’s a two-man live version of the title track here. The album can be found here but Mississippi Charles Bevel spends a lot of time acting these days and it’s a lot more fun to buy it first hand after a performance.