Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
Chicago Blues Reunion
June 6, 2013
The Vic Theater, Chicago
By Linda Cain
Photos: Jennifer Noble
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Nick Gravenites, Barry Goldberg, Harvey Mandel, Corky Siegel – these Chicago blues alumnae don’t get together very often. All of them, except for Corky, relocated to warmer climes long ago. So when the stars of the film documentary Born In Chicago reunite for a Chicago Blues Reunion it is a cause célèbre.
When you add ex-Chicagoans Charlie Musselwhite, Elvin Bishop and Sam Lay, it is a very special homecoming indeed. Add to the mix special guests Eric Burdon, Shemekia Copeland, Ronnie Baker Brooks and Lonnie Brooks and you have a historic night.
Just how influential were these men who, in their younger days, teamed up with the late, lamented Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield to learn to play the blues directly from the architects of the electric Chicago blues sound: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy and Hubert Sumlin, to name a few? The audience at The Vic learned the answer, when a 15-minute segment of the engrossing Born In Chicago was shown before the concert started. Marshall Chess came out to reminisce and introduce the film.
Testifying in the documentary, directed by John Anderson and named after a classic Paul Butterfield song (penned by Gravenites), we have no less than Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, the late Hubert Sumlin, Steve Miller and Marshall Chess (son of Leonard Chess of Chess Records).
All of these famed musicians declare their admiration for the younger Chicagoans, especially Butterfield and Bloomfield. Dylan was so impressed that he hired several of them to play on his recording sessions and on stage, most notably guitarist Bloomfield, drummer Sam Lay and keyboardist Barry Goldberg. Canned Heat asked guitarist Mandel to join the band right before their gig at Woodstock and he later joined John Mayall’s band. The Stones sent for Mandel to join them in Germany to play guitar on their Black and Blue LP in 1976 (he is on “Hot Stuff” and “Memory Motel”). Nick Gravenites formed Electric Flag with Bloomfield. Corky Siegel and Sam Lay joined Jim Schwall to form the Siegel-Schwall Blues Band, one of the first integrated Chicago blues bands along with Paul Butterfield’s group. Goldberg formed a band with Steve Miller when he still lived in Chicago.
The accolades go on; just Google any one of the CBR players and you will see some mighty impressive resumes that reflect a history of American music. For decades these players’ lives and careers have intertwined. They brought Chicago blues to a whole new audience and expanded the genre to include rock, jazz, classical, Latin and world music.
As the film segment ended and the screen rose, the CBR rhythm section of drummer Gary Mallaber and bassist Mark Goldberg kicked off the start of what would be an enchanted evening that enthralled all of the lucky blues fans in the house.
At the top of the show, one of those blues fans gave a short speech to fete the musicians and the importance of blues music in the history of Chicago – Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
As the band members arrived on stage, one by one, they were introduced by Marshall Chess to cheers. Two signs rested on easels on each side of stage which read: Paul Butterfield RIP and Mike Bloomfield RIP. Reunited for the night, the CBR band – keyboardist Goldberg, harmonicist Siegel, guitarists Gravenites and Mandel, backed by an outstanding and versatile rhythm section – played in the ensemble style of their mentors, as each one took turns in the spotlight.
Gravenites was first. As the band played, Nick gave a “sing-talk” introduction to the tale behind “Buried Alive in the Blues” a song he wrote for Janis Joplin who died just before she was to record it. It certainly lent gravitas to the lyrics and one wondered how Janis would have sung it.
“Born in Chicago,” another Gravenites song was next. The indelible blues tune made famous by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band “started a revolution,” according to the author. “A whole lotta honkies all over the world are now playing the blues. I was glad to be there when it was all Born In Chicago,” he said, introducing the song, as the rhythm section pummeled away on this intense urban blues classic.
Now it was Corky’s turn. The band kicked off a slow blues tune as Siegel sang “I’m A King Bee” in a nasally, Slim Harpo style and tone. The master harp blower played some impossibly high notes and impishly hopped about the stage, injecting the normally macho tune with some lighthearted fun and soaring blues harp licks.
Barry Goldberg introduced guest player Charlie Musselwhite, commenting that he and Corky are “two of the best harp players in the country.” Who would argue with that? What a treat to hear them both on the same stage!
Goldberg, surrounded by a B-3 organ and two electric keyboards, kicked off “Bad Boy” (the Eddie Taylor tune) as a lump-de-lump bass line followed. When Charlie sang “I’m a bad boy” with a mischievous grin, you believed him. He played an incredible harmonica solo that was a total symphony of sound.
On “You Know It Ain’t Right,” guitarist Harvey Mandel matched Musselwhite’s multitude of notes by coaxing unearthly noises from his flame-emblazoned axe, almost mimicking a harmonica’s sound.
Harvey dedicated the next tune to his recently departed mother. He performed an instrumental version of the gospel standard “Wade in the Water,” which Mandel recorded many years ago and continues to perform in different versions on stage using his trail-blazing improvisational style. Mandel’s guitar tore through a series of exotic effects, from eerie to psychedelic to rockin’, and culminated in a fabulous torrent of sound, as a breathless downhome solo by Musselwhite brought the song another twist. But it wasn’t over yet. The band continued to jam with Barry Goldberg, who played brilliantly on his sets of 88s, followed by Gary Mallaber’s drum solo and Mark Goldberg’s bass solo. Harvey brought the tune back to the “Wade in the Water” melody, tapping rapid fire notes on his guitar neck (eat your heart out Van Halen). Whew!
Already the audience was becoming satiated, after being treated to a heaping helping of nonstop fine music. And then they brought out special guest Elvin Bishop, a former member of Paul Butterfield’s band who learned blues guitar from the late Little Smokey Smothers. Elvin led the band for “Blues With A Feeling” and brought out his own guitarist, Bob Welsh, to get in on the action. The two guitarists played a sizzling duet on slide which was way too cool. Then Charlie Musselwhite and Elvin duetted on harmonica and guitar, playing in perfect unison for an exciting finish to the song.
Elvin then led the audience in a sing along for the swingy “Hey, Baba Rebop,” which prompted Ronnie Baker Brooks to appear from the wings. Elvin handed RBB his beloved “Big Red” Gibson guitar (quite an honor) and Ronnie fired off a fantastic solo, while mugging with the rubber-faced Elvin. Ronnie returned the guitar and as Elvin played, Sam Lay popped out of the wings briefly to wave hello and show off his elaborate costume.
The festivities took a serious turn as Nick “The Greek” Gravenites returned to perform “Fantasy World,” a cautionary song about dire substance abuse, which he dedicated to the late great Bloomfield and Butterfield. Corky, Harvey and Barry all soloed while Nick played rhythm guitar.
Then it was back to the party with the rockin’ hillbilly chestnut “Drinkin’ Wine” on which Charlie and Corky furiously duetted on blues harp; this really brought the house down and caused their bandmates to flash huge smiles.
There was an intermission as the band prepared for Round 2.
Harvey Mandel opened the set, joined by Timm Martin on bass, with “one of my freakiest instrumentals”. A guitar innovator who was always far ahead of his time, Mandel recalled Jeff Beck’s sonic, soaring excursions, taking his guitar a step further into outer space with all manner of bizarre effects. It was freaky, indeed!
A four-piece string ensemble (three violins and a cello) joined Corky for “I Want You To Come Back Home”, a “Mojo Workin’” styled song with unconventional musical embellishments. This is Corky’s alter ego, The Chamber Blues Ensemble, which combines blues with everything from classical to Middle Eastern styles of music. Apparently inspired by his string section, Corky climbed off stage and played harp passionately and directly to the audience, as the front rows stood and cheered. Back on stage, the harp player, hopped, stomped, got down on his knees , laid on his back, and stopped the band long enough for an a cappella harp solo. The audience gave him a standing ovation.
Charlie Musselwhite gave the audience something more to cheer about, minus the theatrics. His laid back, down-home style simply draws the listener in as his blues story songs unfold and are narrated by both his singing and the “voice” of his majestic harmonica playing. On “The Blues Overtook Me,” he sang, “The blues overtook me, when I was a little child. Fast women and whiskey make a poor boy wild.” And you knew he was singing the truth.
He followed with blues classic “Help Me”, which Charlie recalled recording in July of 1966.The band either pushed or laid back according to the song’s mood and tempo.
Elvin Bishop returned with bandmate Bob Welsh for the social protest song “What The Hell Is Going On?” and the two guitarists shared another fiery string bending dual.
Then it was time for an ecstatic instrumental from Harvey Mandel, “Christo Redentor,” one of his most famous tunes that he recorded on his own LP and also on a record by Charlie Musselwhite. However Charlie didn’t perform it with Harvey this time. Barry Goldberg took the partner role on Hammond B3, his organ swirling in answer to Harvey’s exotic guitar stylings. The two of them interacted so perfectly that the song simply soared and the music sounded blissful and sanctified.
A tribute to CBR’s heroes, Howlin’ Wolf and Hubert Sumlin was next. Nick and Corky returned for “Killin’ Floor.” Goldberg kicked it off with an invigorated keyboard pounding as the rhythm section pummeled the driving beat home. Corky and Barry traded licks, as Nick sang with conviction. Mandel did not imitate Sumlin on the guitar parts, but did his own thing.
Nick, who spoke of residing in rural California, introduced his new, topical blues song “Since the Gas Station Left Town.” Corky’s moaning harp moved along the slow sad blues number with lyrics about folks so desperate for fuel that they’d “sell their children for a tank of gasoline.” Despite the subject matter, the CBR band was having a really fun time jamming on this traditional blues number.
Special guest Eric Burdon stepped out to the front of the stage, looking very cool with his shades, black clothes and white hair. “I wasn’t born in Chicago,” he told the crowd, “but I dreamed about it all my life.”
Burdon proceeded to command the stage as he belted out the Bo Diddley chestnut, “Before You Accuse Me.” He paced back and forth, singing to each side of the audience with his grizzled, powerful and intense vocals. He even got the crowd to sing along and by the last verse he had them standing and cheering for more as the former Animals frontman exited the stage.
Then it was time for the new “Queen of The Blues,” Shemekia Copeland, who had just finished kicking off the first night of the Chicago Blues Fest on the Millennium Park stage for her own concert. She brought her guitarist with her for a rollicking “It’s 2 a.m., Do You Know Where Your Baby Is?” An out and out rock ‘n’ roll song, Barry added some nice honk tonk piano to the mix and Shemekia’s guitarist played a rockabilly style solo. Shemekia’s soaring, high-powered vocals and commanding stage presence got the crowd clapping and singing along. She definitely proved why she is the new Queen of the Blues with this show-stopping number that drew a standing ovation!
Next up was an appearance from the Caped Crusader of the blues, a.k.a. Sam Lay who was bedecked in a spangled outfit that resembled the attire of a marching band leader. He removed most of it, however, as he led the band, which now included Shemekia Copeland, Elvin Bishop, Charlie Musselwhite, Eric Burdon and Ronnie Baker Brooks for an all-star sing along and jam of “Mojo Workin’”. Ronnie and Elvin played a cool guitar duet and Charlie and Corky shared a blistering harp duel.
Just when you thought it was over, Lonnie Brooks came out to join his son Ronnie for the finale, “Sweet Home Chicago.” A teenaged guitarist, Quinn Sullivan who also played in Millennium Park that night with Shemekia, joined in and played some very hot blues guitar licks (which he no doubt learned from mentor Buddy Guy). Lonnie Brooks smiled and looked impressed; he encouraged the talented lad to continue playing as the audience applauded. Of course, Harvey chimed in with one of his cosmic wailing guitar solos and Elvin stepped out front to strut his stuff too. The house lights came up as Lonnie aimed his mic at the crowd to get the audience to sing along. It was a very grand finale indeed.
The audience exited with smiles on their faces, pumped up for more blues on the weekend in Grant Park. You couldn’t help but feel the pride and passion these immensely talented artists have for the blues and their hometown. The camaraderie and brotherly love shared by Gravenites, Mandel, Goldberg and Siegel was palpable to the audience as they projected their good vibes from the stage. For the Chicago Blues Reunion Band, this wasn’t merely a nostalgia trip. They demonstrated that blues continues to be a cornerstone of their lives as well as an evolving, never-ending art form that they are very much keeping alive.
You can catch the Chicago Blues Reunion Band with special guest Marcella Detroit (a.k.a. Marcy Levy of “Lay Down Sally” fame) on July 20 at ShedFest 2013 in Highland Park, along with Big Bill Morganfield and Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater. For info, visit: www.theshed1480.com