Cyril Lance and the Art of Surrender
An African-American man with a ponytail grabs a thickset older white lady around the waist and they spin round and round, his legs straddling hers, their heads cradled into each other’s shoulders. She beams with the rapture that comes with giving yourself over to the blues, and he grins with the pleasure of making another human being feel so good.
It’s easy to surrender to that feeling on this Friday night early in the first set of Cyril Lance’s gig at the Blind Tiger, because these players also give themselves over to the music.
Cyril Lance has been through the paces of several musical educations: the Hawaiian folk music of his boyhood, the great live rock albums of the late 1960s that caught his imagination as a young man, and the discipline of playing as a side man in North Carolina blues godfather Mel Melton’s band, to name a few. As a front man now, all that music is in there somewhere, but the thing that sticks out is the way his sinuous slide playing radiates like heat off Louisiana asphalt. The slink and moan, the whomp ‘– that’s what gets you.
As Cyril hits a run of slide notes on his song ‘“I Want the Real Thing,’” Dave McCracken paints in a series of churchy chords on the Hammond B-3 organ, embellishing and adding dramatic sweep to the song. A limbered-up Kelly Pace moves the song forward keeping time on the drum kit, and periodically signaling change-ups with well-placed thwacks. The bass line fairly shimmers in Steven Clarke’s hands. Adrian Duke, an electric piano player schooled in New Orleans funk and a fairly new addition to the band, plinks out tasty licks.
Presiding over the stage is Cyril, 42, father of two, maker of research instruments for UNC-Chapel Hill, and inveterate musical explorer. He’s more the giddy kid in the sandbox than the master conductor, bopping his head with delight at a surprise groove, cavorting with Dave over the B-3, nodding happily to the other players and blowing kisses to audience members.
The magic is between the instruments, not in one player’s performance. Or as Dave tells me at the bar between sets: ‘“It’s not so much about the individual playing as the unit.’”
Then he sings the praises of the drummer: ‘“Kelly Pace, man. I love playing with him. Most guys think it’s just testosterone. He’s studied it.’”
The players in Cyril’s band gush when they talk about each other.
‘“There’s so much respect, brotherhood and admiration in this band,’” Dave says. ‘“You don’t do it for the money because the money’s no good. When you play everything goes away for three hours. No bills, no heartbreak.’”
The money has not been very good in live music over the past couple years, Cyril says. Recording and selling CDs isn’t exactly a gusher either. The overhead has always been high and recordings tend to be calling cards for bands to get radio promotion and live gigs. A band might sell some CDs at concerts and festivals, but traditionally the check for the gig pays the bills.
Cyril says he’s got about 15 tracks recorded for a new CD and he’ll record another 10 before deciding which ones to cull for the final product. A shortage of cash has forced him to put recording on hold while he does non-musical labor to get some money for studio time. He’ll take the band to some festivals this summer but the logistical costs of the road will keep them mostly in the Southeast.
‘“The live scene is very hard to make a living now,’” Cyril says. ‘“People are staying home more. There’s the internet, I guess. Maybe it’s because the drinking age went up to twenty-one. When I grew up music was the main social thing. It’s not that way anymore and that’s a shame.’”
The crowd at the Blind Tiger this night is a little spare. There’s definitely some boogying on the dance floor, but it’s not jammed so tight as to require anybody to fight to get to the bar. Maybe that’s because Johnny Neel, an alum of the Allman Brothers Band, and his band Grease Factor have pulled out. Johnny handled the bulk of the singing on Cyril’s 2004 release, Live from the Outskirts ‘— parts of which were recorded here at the Blind Tiger in December 2003.
It doesn’t matter that the crowd is light and Johnny isn’t here to handle vocals. Cyril, who devotes himself mainly to the guitar, is a capable enough singer on his own, his voice breaking soulfully over the anguish of ‘“See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.’”
The bass thumps and Cyril reels off a wicked folk lead. Then the lights come up and Cyril switches to slide as drummer Kelly goes into a trance and a wave of B-3 washes over the song. The amps crackle and a woman yells: ‘“Yea-ahhh!’”
Billy ‘The Kid’ Hunt, a blues DJ on WNAA 90.1 FM, swirls and kicks up his heels on the dance floor, moving from side to side.
‘“We got the spirit dancers out,’” Cyril announces, ‘“which we all need.’”
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