Smart roots

I’ve been following the work of James Beaudreau since he sent me a trio of beautifully packaged CD albums for review around ten years ago. Those records contained experimental acoustic guitar music, driven by an interest in the presence and specificity of musical utterances—often signifying as much in terms of the space in which they were recorded as by the tonal organisation of the notes Beaudreau played. Those albums were released under the rubric of his Workbench Recordings netlabel, which I continued to watch with bated breath for further releases. Few were forthcoming. Already available was a single track called ‘The Devil Is A Sad Spirit’, now available appended to a release from 2012, ‘Soft Power b/w Union Square’. Those three tracks offered a tantalising glimpse of other directions this uniquely creative musician might pursue, if he had the time—but like so many interesting musical artists, Beaudreau has a day job, and as he lives in New York he presumably has to work an eighty-hour week to pay the rent on a moderately sized cupboard. In 2014 Workbench released a record Beaudreau had produced by singer-songwriter Philip Lynch, and then went quiet. When I met Beaudreau in New York in 2015 he told me he missed playing gigs, and talked about maybe forming a covers band, playing something audience-pleasing, something equally entertaining for listeners and players. This happened, and gradually morphed into a pretty serious unit of players, performing grooves and improvisations around original material. Going by the name of Bell Helium they released the single ‘Beautiful Day’ in November 2019, and their eponymous debut album in June 2021.

I’ve spent a lot of time with this record since then. I already knew I was pretty well attuned to Beaudreau’s creative sensibilities, so it wasn’t a surprise that I liked it, but it isn’t much like anything of his I’ve heard previously, and it’s true to the vision he sketched at Murray’s Cheese Bar on Bleecker Street in 2015. The songs and arrangements on Bell Helium bridge the jam-band ‘rootsy groove’ style and the sharp, very New York sophistication of a band like Steely Dan (if there are any other bands like Steely Dan). These are smart, entertaining songs, realised with an earthy palette of largely electric instrumental sounds, and arranged to leave space for some blowing, which is carried out with admirable articulacy by Caili O’Doherty on keyboards, and by Beaudreau himself on electric guitar. If I’m honest I’ve had relatively little exposure to Beaudreau’s electric guitar work, yet I’ve known for a long while, on the evidence of the few tracks mentioned above, that it’s one of the things I like most about him as a musician. He combines a penetrating tone with a healthy dose of grit, and a commitment to shaping each note for expressive effect which puts me in mind of John Scofield. Put simply, every phrase he plays gets in there and makes you feel something. This is probably as much a question of Beaudreau staying very present in what he’s doing, as much as it is of any conscious attempt to be ‘expressive’—he doesn’t swamp his melodies in bends and vibrato, he just… plays them right. There’s a subtle spin on everything that’s in total accord with the harmonic movement and melodic contour. Anne DeAcetis’s vocals are realised with a similar aesthetic: full of feeling, faithful to the lyrical texts, but cool and restrained in their delivery. And while I’m mentioning people, Ian Riggs on bass and Cory Cox on drums absolutely nail it, never grandstanding, but deploying a depth of musical knowledge and groove: Riggs’s simple, shapely solo in ‘Blue Summer’ is a delight, barely more active than his well-judged basslines. I have an idea how hard it is to find the time and money it takes to put something like this together when you’re not a full-time musician, so I don’t expect Beaudreau to organise a follow-up any time soon, but I really do hope it happens at some point. My time with Bell Helium has been pure joy.

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