Fire Spirit: Jeffrey Lee Pierce and Gun Club

Jeffrey Lee Pierce was a blues man at heart, gifted with all the talent and power of a young Howlin' Wolf. His music borrowed heavily from the delta blues and other American roots music, but he took inspiration from these forms and created something new. Once president of the Blondie fan club, Pierce was a student of many musical disciplines, from reggae to progressive rock, but his commitment to the blues helped Gun Club, the band he formed in the late 1970's and continued with until his untimely death in 1996 at the age of 37, with varying lineups, become a powerhouse that ultimately released a few seminal records.

Early Gun Club was a primal rush, often resembling Nick Cave's more manic output or slower Cramps sides, but its influences ran deeper than either. Pierce was a student of the blues form that followed his own muse and created records that are still far different than most of what is out there. Fire of Love draws primarily from blues with a heaping dose of country and rock 'n' roll. It sounds evil and manic, traditional and fresh, Pierce's vocals capturing the spirit of any early blues man who might have sold his soul for his art. Punk energy intermingle with rockabilly rhythms and the band careens through a raucous set of Pierce originals and blues covers that includes a nice rework of Son House's "Preaching the Blues" with stellar slide guitar work from Pierce. There isn't a weak track in the bunch, but the show stealer is undoubtedly "Sex Beat" with its tight, melodic beat and clean Pierce vocals. The song owes much to the loose, yet effective, rhythm section of Rob Ritter and Terry Graham.

Miami, the second record, payed more homage to Los Angeles, their home base, with cleaner production, at least in the remastered form, from Blondie's Chris Stein and appearances from Stein and Debbie Harry. The lineup is different as well, but there is as much to love here. The cover choices move away from the blues slightly (CCR and traditional folk tunes) and Pierce turns in another set of excellent songs. If anything, his vocals seem more desperate than ever, yet the thin mix doesn't do justice to the equally good songwriting. The cover depicts the band under palm trees, Pierce brooding from beneath his trademark disheveled blonde locks, looking less like a blues singer than a slight alternative waif. No matter, his soul was large and he sang like his forefathers.

Later Gun Club records are good, but less focused, losing something of the manic energy and bluesy swagger, but remain dark and haunting, if slightly more atmospheric. Pierce never had as effective of a lineup as on those early records. He died of a brain hemorrhage at 37 before he could become an elder statesmen of a scene he had helped create. Always a musician's musician, Pierce has long been revered by other artists, while often slipping under the radar of the record buying public who spend their hard earned wages on rootsy, inspired music.  In recent years, Nick Cave, Deborah Harry, and others have appeared on two stellar collections of songs that Pierce was working on when he died under the title of The Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions Project. The Fire Spirit lives on through them and through his various recordings.

Check out the sessions project here:


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