Sometimes it hurts so much it makes you drink. And sometimes it's the drink that's caused the pain.
"Again and again / All this love for you can't win / And my heartache it burns like fire / But ending up so high and all alone / Lord it's always the same / When I'm feeling no pain," Tinsley Ellis sings on "Feelin' No Pain" from his disc Hell or High Water, and you know he's down, feel his blues deep inside you as Ellis and Kenny Kilgore burn sharp guitar lines into your brain, and you know that the bottle is there, that its power to erase is temporary, elusive, but it's there and you go with it.
The bottle is one of the great talismans of the blues, it's the juice that makes Saturday night so special and the elixir that wipes away all pain and a lie all in one. Think of Willie Dixon's "If the Sea Was Whiskey" or Ivory Joe Hunter's "Cold Grey Light of Dawn", whiskey-soaked songs of despair thick with the musical release that a good shot of whiskey might offer, songs that allow the listener, if not the singer himself, to move through the pain and fear and doubt and maybe, just maybe get to the other side.
This is the theme of Telarc's compilation, Bar Room Blues: A 12-Track Program, a collection highlighting the work of Telarc artists and underscoring the historic connection between the bottle and the blues. There are sizzling cover versions -- such as Charlie Musselwhite's rendition of "Cold Grey Light of Dawn" -- and great originals -- like Kenny Neal's "Whiskey Tears" and Troy Turner's "Later Than You Think" -- all coming back to that shot and a beer on the bar.
When Sam Lay sings of "Pure Grain Alcohol", you can taste it and feel it. When Bob Margolin declares his love in "My New Baby Owns A Whiskey Store", with its cutting harmonica work from Carey Bell and Mookie Brill, you want to raise a glass to his joy. When Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson gets in the mood and tells his lady to "Meet Me with Your Black Drawers On", you with you'd thought of it.
Every cut on the disc is strong, though the covers of the Rolling Stones' "Rip This Joint" and Camille Bob's "I Got Loaded" are far from the definitive versions. Tommy Castro's rendition of the Stones' cut is strong, but lacks the raw passion of the Stones' own raved-up rocker. The same can be said for Tab Benoit's spare though rocking but version of "I Got Loaded", which was a rambling party shout in the hands of Los Lobos on their Will the Wolf Survive.
But the lynch-pin cut on this disc is Tinsley Ellis's "Feelin' No Pain", a moody, burning bit of blues strung on stolid rhythmic foundation and colored by several scorching guitar solos. The song is the disc's darkest and most gut wrenching, following the blues framework into the singer's desire to escape his anguish via the bottle. He keeps drinking to feel no pain, but as the song proves, the pain remains.
And perhaps that the lesson of this 12-track program, that while the bottle can bring you joy and can offer distraction to the weary or tormented soul, its solace is only temporary. The music, however, is timeless. Perhaps when all is said and done, it is better to drop this 12-song compilation into the CD changer than to face the "cold grey light of dawn" after a night of crying "whiskey tears."