"We're doing it for nothing but love," Bell jokes. "And apparently, there's still enough people out there who come for the magic when it happens, 'cause occasionally we still got the spark, man."
Bell first felt the spark back in high school when he saw a young Lightnin' Wells front an English cover band in a Methodist church in Goldsboro, where the two grew up. Bell said he knew he could sing as good and could sure dance a lot better.
"I can still dance better than Lightnin' Wells," Bell chuckles. "That pisses him off, too."
In spite of all the dancing, grunting and sweating Bell has done in the name of R&B, it's getting harder to find a place to showcase his talents. He's been forced to modify his program.
"The spirit of R&B certainly pervades everything we do, and of course we do some out-and-out R&B stuff, but we've been writing some new material lately," Bell says.
He describes the new stuff as "general funky Southern-fried rock." But don't mistake the band for Southern rockers and show up hollerin' for "Free Bird." Bell laughs at that one. But there's nothing funny about the lack of venues for the classic R&B the band is best known for.
"It's been a real shot in the arm to be creative and try to come up with stuff. However, we miss playing all that good R&B that we did," Bell says. "We can't find the fucking venues for it. All the oyster houses, which used to be our mainstay, won't have us anymore because they've turned into this mainline, lowest-common-denominator stuff."
There are only about six bands that play the cover circuit, constantly rotating through, playing the radio hits ad nauseum. Bell acknowledges that.
"This sad tale I'm telling isn't just about me, it's happening for a lot of bands," Bell says. "For people who want to play good R&B or good solid rock 'n' roll without playing all the damn hits, this is a real slow period right now, so we're suffering like fuckers."
About the only places you can see the band these days is at The Cave in Chapel Hill or the Blue Bayou Music Club in Hillsborough. Bell won't be doing any covers at The Cave, as owner Mouse Mock has decreed that bands that perform there only do original material.
"The way I understand it, he's just trying to avoid paying those ASCAP people," Bell says. "'Cause he don't make any money down there. He's just keeping that place open as a public service, and God bless him for it."
Bell's not about to give up. The secret of his longevity, he believes, is his refusal to compromise.
"It's tough, but we're still killin' it," Bell says. "We're up there trying to get release. We're going for the gold. We're out there for the transcendental high. We got the fire. We got the magic ... and when it happens ... shit!" Joe Bell plays the early show at The Cave Friday, March 3.
Joe Bell plays the early show at The Cave Friday, March 3.