Bernard Allison: Across the Water

Bernard Allison
Across the Water

Back in the late ’70s, suffering from overexposure to flashing lights and revolving mirrored balls at those new discotheques, some influential music critics banded together and pronounced that the blues was dead. One even advised those few blues devotees he imagined remaining to run out and buy up all the records in the blues bin, because there would never be another blues record released, ever. The blues was dead. Nobody paid attention to them because they were wrong.

One of the people ignoring the critics back then was young Bernard Allison. He was busy watching his dad, blues great Luther Allison, knock them on down on the line. Bernard began teaching himself to play guitar at age 10, waiting until he was 13 to show his dad what he could do. At the same time those critics were trying to chisel a tombstone, Bernard had just made his first appearance on a “live” record with his father. After finishing high school, Bernard apprenticed for years in Koko Taylor’s high-flying Blues Machine. Moving to Paris in 1989 to live and play the blues with his dad, he soon performed double duty as his father’s bandleader before Luther’s life ended in 1997.

Bernard decided early on that the blues was his. On Across the Water he stretches his wings. He can probably play a 12-bar blues knocked unconscious, so he pushes outside his cruise zone to provide a tasteful blend of rock, funk, and blues on this disc. A good selection of material, these are uncommon arrangements that never lose momentum.

Like most good musicians, Bernard relies on understatement to show his chops. He’s steeped in the blues tradition of repetition and resolution, but Bernard can do this instrumentally as well as lyrically. A good example is the way Bernard falls into a solid blues dance tune, “Change Your Way of Living.” He could carry that song by himself without breaking a sweat, but he allows plenty of space and weaves gracefully around the piano and organ, large instruments that can overtake and inundate the best guitarist. Bernard moves around in the background while each of the keyboards take their respective solos, Bernard flying, dipping, and keeping things warm until he bursts into flame for his solo when he really takes it on home. When he’s popping the frets off down close to the f-holes, he reminds me a little of Freddy Roulette with some of the string jumps that Johnny Winter made famous.

Bernard can play any sort of blues on guitar and he’s willing to experiment with different effects. “I’ve Been Down” an archetypal blues tune is tinged with those fuzzed effects that rock-blues guitarists like Harvey Mandel edged into, but Bernard’s work is also dripping with the heat of Texas blues guitar like Stevie Ray Vaughn. Impressive, and just like the song says, Bernard’s been playing the blues “since the age of ten.”

Bernard’s got it all. He possesses a wonderful singing voice and enough confidence in his tremendous talent to risk innovation. The blues isn’t dead, it’s evolving. There are fine young blues thoroughbreds beginning to move around the tracks and Bernard Allison is a sure bet.

He works hard for it. Check for his tour schedule. If you’re lucky, he’ll be playing in a town near you. In the meantime, this record is invitation enough to try to grab a ticket for one of his shows.