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Wake-up call

Bluesman Chris Beard turns negative into positive



Chris Beard plays the blues as if his pants were on fire. His fleet fretwork is deadly, often reducing his guitar to five, four, and sometimes three strings before the song is through.

His blues have plenty of soul and sweat and show no signs of letting up. Beard is equally relentless.

But this past summer Rochester's "Prince of the Blues" had to readdress his intensity.

"I do everything as far as my career goes," Beard says. "I do most of my own booking and then talk about being on the road, driving, playing music. It's crazy. The stress got too much for me."

On June 7, Beard had a mild stroke.

"I woke up at 9 o'clock in the morning," he says. "About two hours later I started noticing I was feeling drunk. I hadn't had a drink in 14 years. I didn't know what was going on."

Beard ignored it and set about his day. He ran errands, including a stop at Fed Ex to send out tour promo material.

"I went to fill out my name and I couldn't," he says. "That scared the shit out of me."

Beard spent three days in the hospital. The stroke affected his speech and the use of his right arm. So he took a month off. One month.

He had just released Live Wire, his third release and first for NorthernBlues Music. It was a real lid-blower, with mostly live cuts recorded in Chicago and Grand Rapids. Beard and his band needed to tour and push it, live.

Determined not to lose any of his hard-earned momentum, Beard hit the road with a second guitar player to fill in his gaps.

"I was going to therapy and stuff," he says. "And my therapist tells me, 'Look Chris, guitar playing isn't normal. We can get you back to doing normal things. The only person that's going to get you back to playing guitar like you were is you.'"

So Beard dropped the second guitar player.

"Finally I said: Look, I gotta do this myself,'' he says.

Today, the 48-year-old bluesman says he's recovered 90 percent of his ability while also rediscovering what's at the heart of his playing.

"I've turned a negative into a positive." he says. "When I was growing up, I used to listen to Buddy Guy and the players that played fast. And I used to tell my father, [Rochester's King of the Blues Joe Beard] 'I want to play fast like so-and-so.' He said, 'Just keep playing and the speed will come in time.'"

It came. And how.

"But somewhere along the line of me speeding, trying to get fast, and listening to other players," he says, "I kind of forgot about the feel of the music and the thing about trying to get as much out of the note as I possibly can."

"So me being in a place where my right hand wouldn't keep up with my left hand," he says, "I had to concentrate on getting as much out of that note. It's made me a better player."

Beard continues to tour. His annual schedule is back to where it was, about 200 dates across the US.

He refers to his stroke as a "wake-up call from God" and has taken steps to alleviate the stress. But he can't quit.

"When you get to one level, you realize you can't stop there 'cause there's more and there's better," he says.

And he'll prove it, too. He plans on releasing an all studio album of new material in the spring.

"My speed is back," he says, "with that slow perspective."

Chris Beard plays local shows periodically throughout the year. For more info on Beard or future dates:

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