From: Pittsburgh City Paper

Rico Suave

Rico Bell


What they're really about is stressing,' says Rico Bell, on the phone from San Francisco, 'looking old and beaten up. It's part of the work for it to be beaten up and cracked, and have that extra quality. I like doing work that's kind of messed up; I do it all perfect, then half destroy it. It adds that extra dimension.'

Bell is talking about his paintings -- most recently a stream of western- and cowboy-influenced oil paintings -- but he could just as easily be talking about his songs. Both as a solo musician, and in his work as a member of the oh-so-seminal British art-punk band the Mekons, Bell's music has followed a meandering path, always teetering on the edge of collapse, but never quite falling off.

On Been A Long Time, his new Bloodshot Records EP, Bell casts his net back to 1988 and pulls it forward to today, catching eight songs from his past and present and releasing them together on a surprisingly cohesive effort. Just like his artwork, Bell's music is a brittle patchwork of Southwestern and Cajun imagery, perfected and then sifted through a dirty back-bar filter until the natural cracks and imperfections show through. It's the Americanization of a very English trait -- the glorification of failure, as if Robert F. Scott were a cowboy. Just like Bell himself.

'Because I now live in the U.S. I can do those kind of western things,' says Bell. 'It fits with the music I do, as well, which I like -- to sort of unify things.'

Bell's musical history goes back to early-'60s Liverpool, when the schoolboy Eric Bellis (his real name) would play hooky and hit the Cavern Club to see the local bands -- you know, like The Beatles. His musical career began a few years later playing an acoustic guitar in the folk clubs, but it wasn't until the early-'80s, while touring as a member of Leeds-based goth band The March Violets, that Bell found his musical calling. The Mekons, also based in Leeds, were starting to experiment with country music and folk instrumentation, and Bell fell right in.

'I started singing with the Mekons, but they had plenty of guitars -- accordion fit in with their fiddles and everything,' says Bell. 'I could already play the piano, knew the keyboard, and so it was kind of easy to pick up the accordion's keyboard. The bellows were another thing -- it used to really make my arms ache.'

Bell has played accordion with the Mekons ever since -- the band has a new album, and a 25th anniversary tour coming this September. And on his solo work, such as the tejano-flavored 'Crime' and Cajun 'I'll Go On Living ('Til I Die)' on Been A Long Time, it's the accordion that dominates the proceedings. But everything comes full-circle -- unifies -- in Rico Bell's world, and it's John Lennon as much as Flaco Jimenez whose shadow darkens Bell's songs, such as the harmonized waltz of 'Yours Truly,' and the dark, Mekons-ish cover of 'Working Class Hero.'

Rico's performances, too, have come full circle. On his current tour, opening for alt-country sweetheart Christy McWilson, Bell is all on his own with guitar and harmonica. He'll be airing out a new batch of songs that may appear on his next Bloodshot full-length due later this year, as well as selections from his two previous solo albums and maybe some Mekons tunes. Though the set-list may span 25 years of music, Bell's certain that it'll come together -- just like Been A Long Time.

'I don't really write fashionable songs particularly, so they're not going to go out of date,' Bell assures. 'Because they're never in date.'

Rico Bell and Christy McWilson -- plus McWilson's all-star band featuring Dave Alvin, Scott McCaughey, Bobby Lloyd Hicks, Joe Terry and a special guest -- perform at 8 p.m. Sun., April 7, at Club Café, South Side.


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