Bryan Lee – Sanctuary | Album Review

Bryan Lee – Sanctuary

Ear Relevant Records

11 Songs, 61 minutes

Born in Wisconsin in 1943 and currently based in New Orleans, Louisiana, Bryan Lee is one of those guys who’s been around forever, making solid records and playing all over the world. Legally blind since the age of 8, he’s also known as the “Braille Blues Daddy,” and has been a fixture on Bourbon Street since the early 1980s.

His deep interest in rock and blues music was fostered through the 1950s by the sounds he’d heard over the airwaves on Nashville-based WLAC-AM, where he first encountered classic blues artists such as Elmore James, Albert King and Albert Collins, along with the early progenitors of rock and roll.

By his late teens, Lee was playing rhythm guitar in regional bands, covering the music of Elvis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry. During the 60s, Lee’s interest shifted to Chicago blues, and he soon found himself immersed in that scene, opening for some of his boyhood heroes. In 1979 he released his first album, Beauty Isn’t Always Visual. Since then, he’s gone on to release more than a dozen albums, and continues to perform in New Orleans, while also touring throughout the U.S., and more recently venturing out to Europe and South America.

In 1995, Bryan shared his stage with a then 13 year old Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Lee was so blown away by the young Shepherd’s guitar playing that he invited him to play on his two Live from The Old Absinthe House CDs in ’97 and ’98. Shepherd also made a guest appearance on Lee’s 2009 CD My Lady Don’t Love My Lady, along with Buddy Guy. In 2007, Shepherd reciprocated by having Lee appear with him as the musical guest on Jay Leno’s The Tonight Show, helping to expose Lee’s work to a larger, younger audience. In 2010, Lee was nominated for a Grammy Award for his work on Live! In Chicago with Kenny Wayne Sheppard and Friends; the album went on to win a Blues Music Award for Best Rock Blues Album.

Lee’s latest effort, Sanctuary, is something of a departure from his earlier releases in that it infuses his usual, electric blues with a rather large dose of Christianity and Gospel music. “This is the blues-gospel record I always wanted to make,” said Lee. “The good Lord gave me this gift and I want to share it with you.” From the very first track, “Fight for the Light,” a deep, funky New Orleans groove gives you the sense that for Lee, Christianity is a joyous thing. This track sets the tone for the rest of the album, from the rollicking shuffles of “The Gift” and “Jesus is My Lord and Savior” to more Gospel-y, organ heavy numbers like “Sanctuary” and “Only if You Praise the Lord.” “U-Haul” brings yet more New Orleans funk, with a catchy second line beat powering Lee’s all-too-true message about mortality and worldly possessions: “I ain’t never saw no U-Haul behind a hearse.”

“The Lord’s Prayer” is a track that was recorded in Norway in 2011, and served as the cornerstone of this album. As Lee tells it, the arrangement for this reading of the “Our Father” came to him in a dream, and he went out and performed it the very next day. It’s a Gospel-infused reading of the prayer, featuring mostly piano and organ, and Lee’s sincere, soulful vocal. Lee’s voice is a rich, relaxed tenor, somewhat reminiscent of Curtis Salgado’s, (and there ain’t nothing wrong with that). Another track that had its origins in that Norway trip is the album’s closer, “Jesus is My Lord and Savior.” Musically, it’s a an up-tempo swing shuffle, but with a compelling message of redemption and learning how to become a better person. Other standout tracks include “I Ain’t Gonna Stop” and “Jesus Gave me the Blues.”

Album personnel include Lee on guitar and vocals; Deidre Fellner on backing vocals; Marc Spagone on guitar; Jack Berry and David Kasik on bass; Matt Liban on drums; Jimmy Voegeli on keyboards; Greg Koch on dobro; Steve Hamilton on percussion; Hamilton also co-produced this album with Lee.

Bottom line? Sanctuary is a collection of infectious Gospel-tinged (and downright funky) grooves, solid songwriting, artful performances, Lee’s tasty, stinging guitar licks, and Lee’s understated yet soulful vocals, all in service of his love of his Christian faith. But you don’t have to be a Christian to dig these grooves. These tracks all withstand – and even encourage – repeated listening. And rest assured, even at 75, Bryan Lee has let us know that he’s definitely still “got it goin’ on!”

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