Harmonica player Mark Bell is an aging baby-boomer who picked up his first harp in 1973, when he was seventeen. For Bell, it was an epiphany. "I played John Mayall's `Room to Move' by ear," he says, "and I've been cursed with it ever since."
Bell's way with a harmonica may seem like a curse to him, but a number of celebrity musicians have found it to be a blessing. On Ivan Neville's most recent release, Thanks, Bell guests alongside Keith Richards on one tune, and he's set to contribute to a bona fide blues album by rock legend Bo Diddley next month. Diddley, who chose Bell for these sessions over James Cotton, has maintained a friendship with the Denverite since they performed a gig together at Shotgun Willie's in 1981, when the venue was a country-and-Western bar. During Bell's late-Eighties tenure as a town councilman in the Eagle County community of Red Cliff, Diddley even played several fundraising concerts at Bell's behest.
Still, Bell says his primary focus these days is his quartet, the Daily Blues. The group was formed earlier this year, and it's already gone through major changes. The original lineup consisted of drummer Kem Stralka, a Boulder percussionist who's known Bell for over twenty years; bassist Milt Muth, a dead ringer for the young Milton Berle; and vocalist/pianist/guitarist Smokin' Joe Kelly. But while Bell and Kelly exuded considerable musical chemistry, the two frontmen parted company after only four months--according to Bell, they realized that they were heading in different musical directions. Kelly was subsequently replaced by another of Bell's longtime buddies, Denver guitarist Rich Reno.
Since Reno has been in the Daily Blues lineup for only about a month, the four-piece is in the midst of developing its sound. Bell does know, though, that the mix will include Reno's vocal work and original compositions. "I think we feed off of each other," he elaborates. "The better a musician is, the better it makes me, and Rich is the consummate player. I just want to keep building so we have something fresh." He adds, "I don't think we're going to Carnegie Hall or anything next year. But I just want to make something fresh, even on remakes of old tunes."
One of the reasons Bell succeeds at invigorating the blues-harmonica formula is his refusal to accept the instrument's limitations. "Some folks call this a Mississippi saxophone--and to tell you the truth, I've always been moved by saxophone," he reveals. "My tone and my sound is a really deep vibrato. You hear harp players talking about tongue-blocking technique, but I have no concept of what that is. I just play from deep down inside. I use my tongue in the back by my throat to block air thrusts, but it never comes near the harmonica. Consequently, I think it's a fatter sound."
In Bell's opinion, something else that differentiates him from the blues-harmonica norm is his ability to play at low volumes. "Not too many blues bands can go in and play quietly and still play with intensity and balls," he declares. "But just playing in front of a vocal mike can be really beautiful. If you don't have a tone, the finest amplifiers in the world aren't going to give you what you don't already have.
"Less is more," he goes on. "You can play more with one note than you can with a whole handful. Essentially, I'm playing chromatic scales, because I take one hole, one note, and bend it anywhere from two to four half-steps. It makes for a real smooth sound instead of going `honk-honk-honk-honk-ga-ga-guh-ga-ga-tah.'"
Right now, Bell's goal is to continue to refine his sound--and to do so in Denver. For years he's lived a nomadic, coast-to-coast lifestyle, but he claims he's finally ready to put down roots. "I love this place," he says. "I want to continue to live here and play here." However, he concedes, "I've made resource contacts in faraway places. On up the road, I plan to nurture some of those contacts."
Not everyone loves Bell, of course: "Along the way, I've made enemies. I call it the way I see it. And I'm still going to be true to my integrity and what I believe in, even if that pisses people off."
Clearly, this is not a man who feels the need to apologize for his ambitions. "I don't want to take shortcuts. So, therefore, I won't go play for fifty bucks just to be playing. I'll go play because that's what I want to do. The money is secondary--but I won't give it away. If I have to wait ten years to make it, then I'll wait. I'm young, I've got my health, I've got a sparkle in my eye and I'm not hurting anybody. If I can work in this music scene, I have full intentions of doing it."
Mark Bell and the Daily Blues. 8 p.m. Wednesdays, Shakespeare's, 2375 15th St., 433-6000.
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