Some months ago, I began seeing hints that a new album was forthcoming from Guy Bélanger, who is (rightly) considered one of the best harmonica players in Québec if not North America. Although I was not terribly familiar with his work, I was nevertheless curious about what I might hear.
“Traces and Scars” was released last March, and when it finally reached the top of my not inconsiderable listening pile, I was blown away. From Bélanger’s biography, I was expecting a full-blown blues affair. The blues are certainly present, but there is so very much more to this album, which is at least in part a tribute to fellow blues musician Bob Walsh, who passed away in 2016. The opening track, “My Dearest Friend,” is a slow and gorgeous ode to that friendship, and the harmonica in Bélanger’s hands has a fluidity and lyricism beyond any tribute in words.
“Fat Boys,” featuring American fingerstyle guitarist Preston Reed, is an utter blues delight, pairing the two musicians’ considerable skills in a sonic duel that is as fun to hear as I imagine it was to record. (Crank this one up, people – you’ll want to hear every detail.) It’s followed by the equally delightful “Les mauvaises herbes,” a piano-based ballad (somewhat Blue Rodeo-like in sound) that once again shines the spotlight on Bélanger’s magical harmonica.
You’ll want to turn the stereo back up for “See the Light” and “Common Ground,” two funky treats that are part blues, part prog rock, and all delightful. (The bass lines on both of these would catch M’s ear for sure.) Of all the absolute wonders on this project, though, I think that the title track must be my favorite. Featuring cellist Eric Longsworth in a gorgeous counterpoint to the harmonica, the piece demonstrates amply that anyone who thinks that cello and harmonica don’t go together needs to think again, and listen to this track for ample proof that they work extremely well together.
I came to my enjoyment of the blues relatively late in life, and I’m now making up for lost time. “Traces and Scars” is a joy to hear, with enough depth and variety to keep the listener’s ear enchanted for the full 46 minutes of play time (and then again, and again…). I look forward to digging into Guy Bélanger’s back catalog after this magnificent introduction to his talent. (I also look forward to exploring the work of Preston Reed, Eric Longsworth, and other musicians who participated in this project.) Highly recommended.