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Photo by Brad FurmanThe last time I saw guitarist Harvey "The Snake" Mandel at UC Irvine, it was some 32 years ago, deep in the hippie days, when his band Pure Food and Drug Act played a free show on the steps outside the Science Lecture Hall. Mandel's expansive, sustain-laden blues playing was musically deft and armor-piercingly loud. One guy in the crowd was so stoned that he laid his frazzled head right in one of the deafening PA bins. That man is now president of the United States.
Mandel kept on slitherin' through the years and returns to the campus this Saturday in the company of several of his old cohorts, in the BuriedAliveintheBluesChicago Blues Reunion tour. If names like Nick Gravenites, Barry Goldberg, Tracy Nelson and Corky Siegel don't ring a bell, it's just because the right things aren't being taught in schools.
Remember the old posters warning parents not to let their kids listen to the hypnotic rhythms of "race" records? Well, these were the kids whose parents didn't heed that warning, who were so enchanted by the sounds of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf records that they sought their heroes out in the bars of Chicago's South Side, becoming some of the first white faces to venture there (along with Charlie Musselwhite, Steve Miller, and the late Mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield). It was a school of sorts—with Waters and others magnanimously letting these white kids sit in with their bands and feel their way into the music—but it probably wasn't like your school: Bloomfield told tales of seeing a severed head in a shopping bag and similar distractions in the clubs.
By the time these blues hounds discovered the South Side, Sam Lay—also a member of the reunion tour—had been a fixture there for years, drumming with Little Walter, Waters and Wolf, and he soon joined Butterfield's seminal blues-rock outfit.
When the '60s turned strange, these folks were in the thick of it: on the historic occasion when Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival, Lay and organist Goldberg were among the band members providing the juice. When the Electric Flag (one of the great underappreciated U.S. bands) tore it up at 1967's Monterey Pop Festival, Goldberg was on keys, while Gravenites was chief singer and songwriter. The latter was later tapped for the unenviable job of replacing Janis Joplin in Big Brother & the Holding Company. With the band Mother Earth, Tracy Nelson was the "other" grand white blues singer of the era. Three days after joining Canned Heat, Mandel found himself playing in front of a quarter-million people at Woodstock (his solo career was also interspersed with gigging with John Mayall and the Rolling Stones). Harmonica player Siegel had the Siegal-Schwall and has made a noted career taking the little blues harp into symphonic settings.
They're all touring behind a Chicago Blues Reunion BuriedAliveintheBluesDVD and CD, which seem intended to catch them some overdue recognition, like StandingintheShadowsofMotowndid for Detroit's great studio players. And why not? They've parlayed their teenage love of the music into a lot of pleasure for listeners over the decades. And as Gravenites points out on the DVD, Muddy and Wolf are gone and aren't coming back, so all you can do now is see the guys who saw them.?
THE CHICAGO BLUES REUNION WITH TRACY NELSON, NICK GRAVENITES, BARRY GOLDBERG, HARVEY MANDEL, SAM LAY, AND CORKY SIEGEL AND BAND AT THE IRVINE BARCLAY THEATRE, 4242 CAMPUS DR., IRVINE, (949) 854-4646; WWW.THEBARCLAY.COM. SAT., 8 P.M. $32-$38. ALL AGES.
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