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Chicago Blues Reunion in Hollywood

Watching Chicago Blues Reunion perform last weekend in Hollywood, a term from the film industry came to my mind: this is a high-concept group. An ensemble cast of players from legendary blues bands like the Electric Flag, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the Siegel-Schwall band and the backing bands of such greats as Howlin' Wolf, Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan, the Reunion is also just that, a gathering of old friends from the Chicago blues scene of the early 1960s. That sense of camaraderie came through in the music in the sympathetic communication between the band's nine musicians and their obvious comfort in sharing the spotlight. The mic was passed from Nick Gravenites to Tracy Nelson to Sam Lay and the solos allotted to Harvey Mandell and then Barry Goldberg. Nobody seemed to be trying to show anyone else up except maybe in the most good natured way that sometimes happens among friends.

Gravenites, Nelson and Lay each took turns as featured vocalist. Nick Gravenites, with crucial backing from Ms. Nelson, provided an early highlight with a rousing version of his original "Buried Alive In The Blues." This is the title track of the band's current CD and DVD (Out The Box Records) and a song that first appeared as an instrumental on Janis Joplin's last album Pearl. (Joplin was scheduled to lay a vocal atop that track but drank herself to death the night before, roughly three miles from the site of tonight's performance.) Tracy Nelson has a magnificent voice and she unleashed it on "Mother Earth," the song from which her late sixties/early seventies band took its name. Sam Lay, nattily attired with a suit, gold crucifix and a belt buckle bearing his name, earned his fame as one of the premier and pivotal drummers in blues history by playing with first generation Chicago bluesmen like Howlin' Wolf and Little Walter. Later, he played with artists like Butterfield and Dylan. With veteran Gary Mallaber holding down the drum chair tonight, Lay showed his considerable skills as a vocalist and frontman by performing a medley of early rock and roll tunes and an R&B workout from Ray Charles. Segueing between "Hound Dog" and "Roll Over Beethoven," he gave Harvey Mandell an opportunity to bust out some Chuck Berry licks that were really outstanding.

Harvey Mandell is one of the most truly innovative blues guitarists of the last forty years. I'm not sure why he isn't a bigger star. He's had some brushes with fame: playing with Canned Heat at Woodstock, Heat bassist Larry Taylor in John Mayall's underrated USA Union band, and a brief tryout with the Rolling Stones, which can be heard on a couple tracks on their Black and Blue LP (also underrated in my opinion). Still, he isn't the household name he should be. He was certainly the player I was most jazzed up to see, though. His leads and fills all evening were beautiful and right; showcased on "GM Boogie," he took things to another level. At its base, the riff comes from John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillun" through the later explorations of Canned Heat, ZZ Top, et alia; Mandell started of on it as a simple blues, but expanded on it in a way that was uniquely his own. In the post-Jimi Hendrix/Cream/Led Zeppelin era, a lot of players will take a blues riff and morph it into a kind of proto-heavy metal. Mandell pretty much avoided this trap and went instead in a direction that was deeply and personally psychedelic and imbued with a kind of grace. The closest comparison I can make would be with Jeff Beck; he doesn't sound like Beck, really, but his style is singular in the same way--there's this bedrock of traditional blues and early rock that informs each of their playing and then there's this other 20 or 30% that just seems to come from themselves alone.

Mandell may have been the most dramatic instrumentalist on stage with the Chicago Blues Reunion, but he was not the only one to contribute impressively. Barry Goldberg's Hammond B3 organ and other keyboard solos were consistently tasty and built a kind of cumulative weight over the course of the band's seventy minute or so set. The rhythm section of Mallaber, bassist Rick Reed and second guitarist R. Zach Wagner held everything together throughout the evening. Closing out the performance was a lively version of the old blues standard "Drinking Wine." Gravenites sang lead on it like he did forty years ago in the Electric Flag with Nelson and Lay doubling on the great chorus of "Wine, Wine Wine!" This was a perfect note on which to close a blues show at a dry venue. After more than an hour of listening to the blues, I doubt that I was the only one to head out onto Sunset Boulevard and get a drink.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Chicago Blues Reunion
  • Concert Date: 7/22/2005
  • Venue: Amoeba Music
  • City State Country: Hollywood, CA
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