CHRIS BELL EXPLORES HIS ROOTS
By Jim Price
Like a number of area music fans, I first became acquainted with American roots artist Chris Bell more than a decade ago, when he first started bringing his West Coast-based electric blues group, Chris Bell & 100% Blues, to Pennsylvania stages. His passion, grit, enthusiasm and dazzling guitar skills quickly caught my attention, and made him a favorite with fans as he graced the stage of the annual Central PA Festival of the Arts in State College several times, as well as other local and regional events.
Around five years ago, Chris relocated to State College, and has since been exploring his musical roots with his current band, The Chris Bell Band. Fueled by his blues roots, Chris now explores sounds from across the roots music spectrum, with an emphasis on country and country-rock.
Born in Washington, D.C. and raised in western Massachusetts, Chris took guitar lessons from renowned guitarist Tony Macalpine, and was also influenced by Mike Mushok (who would later achieve fame as a member of Staind). He began to write songs as a teenager. By the late 1980s, Chris moved to Los Angeles and played the Sunset Strip circuit in numerous bands, and called Los Angeles and Las Vegas his home bases until 2010. His career to date includes more than a decade of performing live shows across the country, as well as issuing five CD’s and one DVD.
After arriving in State College, Chris assembled the cast of his current band through musicians he met while working at Rainbow Music in State College. Having never played in a band before, Ben Leaper inquired and was hired after learning that Chris was seeking a drummer. And Brian McHugh, who became established in several Centre and Clearfield County-based bands including Mysterytrain and Gypsy & the Crazymoon, was referred to Chris by another musician, and was subsequently brought on board as Chris’ bass player.
With his new band, Chris now explores his musical influences, tapping into styles he listened to while growing up. His current sound is informed by southern rock pioneers like the Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Charlie Daniels. His sound is also Nashville-influenced; Chris cites classic country names like Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash; and is also a fan of current country hitmakers like Jason Aldean and Eric Church. His initial exploration led to Chris’ 2012 CD, Bell Countyline; and he is currently writing and recording new songs. He recently unveiled two new songs recorded in Nashville, the rowdy “Whole Lotta Whiskey” and “Bucket List.” He and his band will record more material toward an EP to be released before year’s end, and a subsequent new full-length CD to be issued sometime in 2017.
Chris enjoys the storytelling nature of roots music. As he explains, “That’s what’s fueled doing Americana and southern-ish rock and country, because it is true story, whether it’s being the last one in the bar when they call last call, or you love your mother, or – I’m not a preacher – but if you believe in God…” Keeping with that tradition, Chris likes to write music based on his own life and experiences.
On the live stage is where the Chris Bell Band likes to excel. Their live show features an assortment of classic rock, southern rock, new country, blues rock and original tunes. According to Chris, “Our references can vary from Levon Helm and The Band to ZZ Top to blues-rock guys like Gary Moore and Johnny Winter and Rory Gallagher.” He adds, “We go into some of the Chris Stapleton stuff and Skynyrd, so it goes anywhere in that little realm and it’s not out of place. It’s all kind of the same thread that runs through…It’s the same thread that’s sewing it together.”
Ben cites The Chris Bell Band’s versatility and smoothness through the course of a show, explaining that they can create a ride through an entire set, switching up styles and venturing between hard-rocking country, second-line (New Orleans) groove and more. According to Ben, “Our performance has soul.”
Brian adds that playing in The Chris Bell Band is “A lot of fun, a great challenge, definitely a high bar musically.”
Besides further writing and recording, The Chris Bell Band’s future goals and plans are to continue to grow and expand their regional fan base, and eventually become an opening act for touring Nashville bands and artists. The group continues to invest work into honing their own distinctive sound, and plan to create more original music. They also plan to pursue radio airplay for their music.
Chris and his band thank everybody who has helped them along the way. Chris is thankful for his bandmates and all who have supported him, explaining “Like a NASCAR guy, my name’s over the door, but a lot of people help me get there.” Of his own band, Chris adds, “We’re family and brothers…”
Of his bandleader, Brian says, “Chris is a dynamic talent, and in the ever-changing music business that’s changing on the fly, he does a great job of keeping current, keeping up, keeping with technology and knowing what sells, and how to market everything.” He adds that being in The Chris Bell Band is “Fun, challenging, inspiring.”
Those interested in checking out Chris and his music online may obtain the Bell Countyline CD through CD Baby (www.cdbaby.com), or check out the Chris Bell Band’s Bandcamp and Reverbnation pages.
Chris and his band are excited about the future and musical direction, with plans to stay true to the roots, but continue to explore new frontiers. The group will continue to bring their music to new stages and expand their following.
According to Chris, “The band is strong, you might want to check us out.”