In search of the spiffy
Ben Bell and the Stardust Boys worked through an Elvis tune during their soundcheck at a dinner show at Chelsea’s, but “Paralyzed” isn’t one you’d readily know. It is characterized by the clean—or as Bell calls his take on retro country and rockabilly—“spiffy” gait to it. Later, he ended the band’s first set at Chelsea’s by promising the crowd “countrified Elton John and Spanish bluegrass” when they return. Plenty of bands do covers, but Ben Bell is up to something a little more cerebral.
“I have a vision,” Bell tells me a few nights later on his Garden District patio, his dog cavorting around the darkened yard, his family absorbed in Sunday night TV. His mom, who also happens to be his neighbor, hollers “good night” from over the fence.
In this comfortable congenial setting of his back patio, Bell confides a more personal definition of what he does as a musician and artist. “It’s not a niche. It’s bringing something into the world that I want to hear.”
Bell’s life has always been consumed by music, by chasing a sound.
“My buddies make fun of me, but I’m a big fan of the Kingston Trio.”
Sharing my fondness for the venerated folk group of the ‘50s and ‘60s, I pointed to the bottled energy, and he lights up. “It’s spiffy!”
Bell bounced around musical styles and interests throughout his life.
“Talentlessly piddling with the piano, I wrote a minuet I could probably play for you, but as for singer-songwriter stuff, I didn’t pick up the guitar until I was eighteen and then wrote my first songs sometime after that.”
He played in bands in Hunstville (The Jade Crickets), in Austin (Beau Geste and Ben Bell and the Triggermen), but was always on the search for that perfect sound.
“I was going backwards,” Bell says of his college years. “I had a Leadbelly poster on my wall in the dorm, and was into Woody Guthrie. I was eschewing modern music and digging a trench to an earlier time.” There is still a bit of that to what Bell does now. He plays retro country and rockabilly with his band the Stardust Boys—guitarist Sam Boykin Short who also plays with the Roebucks, Ed White on upright bass, and Neill Cato on drums. “This is the best band I’ve ever played with.”
The band is tight as fence wire. “The old timers would call us a string band,” says Bell. “I’ve only played with upright bass and a snare drum rhythm section.”
Where things get loose is the swing of their songs. For instance, they do an inspired country shuffle through Elton John’s “Honky Cat” and a peppy rockabilly rendering of Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me.”
“I’ve been on the border between homage and fromage for years,” Bell laughs. “Dwight Yoakam made it safe to do ‘I Want You to Want Me.’ He’s cool country.”
Bell and the band are finishing up an album featuring the aforementioned Elvis tune, Ray Price’s “Heartache by the Numbers” and a dozen of Bell’s originals which hold their own against such classics.
The elegant melodrama of Bell’s “The Matador” walks that line that only country music can walk. There is a deep loneliness, a “river of blood” and yet, despite all the tragedy and introspection, humor. It has that crowd-pleasing Mexican gate that brings the dancers to the floor, but also a marked internal darkness. I remark that Hank Williams was great at that sort of thing and he asks my favorite Hank tune off the top of my head. I say it is “Six More Miles (To the Graveyard)” but then wonder for a moment if that’s not an Ernest Tubb number. “I don’t think so,” says Bell. “Ernest Tubb didn’t have that kind of gravitas. “
Bell chooses “Settin’ the Woods on Fire” as his favorite and it fits. It is as classic as it gets: love and destruction and rage and joy colliding under a crack band, with just a handful of strings and drum heads and a voice to deal with such emotional complexity.
Bell’s songs sound just as perfect in the side bar at Chelsea’s as they do on this darkened patio. “Strangest Dreams” glows with cautious optimism, tinged with regret and hope and a number of things the human spirit is ill-equipped to process fully. It might be about a girl. It might be about the journey to get to where he is now. Either way, it’s a love song to uncertainty, focusing on what lays ahead.
“I’ve been known to take things to the extremes / All that you’ve given me are the strangest dreams” he sings before breaking into a vocalization, almost a yodel, a spiffy little purity that might just be that sound he’s after.
Details. Details. Details.
Ben Bell & the Stardust Boys play an early evening show at Chelsea’s Café on the first Thursday of every month. chelseascafe.com
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