Saturday, March 7, 2009

Chicago Blues Reunion - Buried Alive

Do you remember the old classic (well, some thought so) blues supersession album FATHERS AND SONS? Well, these guys are the first to admit that they are "the sons" (well, there's a "daughter" in the mix as well). That's why singer/songwriter Nick Gravenites talks about creating the "NORTHSIDE" blues scene. So the title is a bit misleading -- in the actual concert and in more extensive interviews, he went on at length about their many trips to the Southside clubs to catch the acts of the founding fathers. It was what the then new generation of blues artists (and blues influenced rockers) were cutting their teeth on. And this second generation of (yes, usually white) blues artists--which included Gravenites, Corky Siegel, Barry Goldberg and Harvey Mandel (all headliners here), alongside others like Mike Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield and Charlie Musselwhite--were prime movers of this burgeoning music scene. Also in the audience (though not usually gracing the Chicago stages, to my knowledge) was an eager young singer from Madison, WI, who was watching, learning and developing into one of the most powerful singers of her generation. That would be Tracy Nelson, who most people associate with San Francisco and, later, Nashville--but whose roots run deep in Chicago. So when someone got the idea of a Chicago reunion, it's not as though these artists weren't all legit. It may well be that as a group, they did not achieve the fame of some of their peers, or of their predecessors for that matter. But even a cursory listen to this record should convince the unbiased listener that they should have met with greater success than they did. Life's not always fair. It's enough to make you want to sing the blues. And sing 'em they do. Nick Gravenites has always been something of a blues-rock stalwart. His main claim to fame heretofore has probably always been his songwriting (penning tunes for Joplin and others) and for his work with the shortlived Electric Flag. But he has always been an underrated singer. His is a rich, warm baritone and his delivery is always down-to-earth and good-humored. Yes, there is a bit of schtick to his delivery (and I guess he could be accused of a bit of name-dropping here and there, what with numerous the Janis and Muddy references), but I prefer to think of those a tips of the hat. Or maybe "two hats." On the album, Gravenites carries the greater portion of the vocal chores, with Tracy Nelson coming in a close second. The sequencing is actually kind of interesting. Tracy sort of sneaks in doing back up on Nick's title song "Buried Alive in the Blues" (the one Janis never got to record). The two singers complement each other well, and it is clear that Tracy, almost despite her overpowering solo vocals, is a skilled back-up singer as well. But on the very next track "Walk Away" she is ready to take center stage and deliver a classic, downright spinetingling performance. It's a blistering vocal, one that leaves the audience audibly awed. Nelson's fans (and I number myself among them, in case you hadn't guessed) may be somewhat disappointed that her numbers here have all been released before. But this is a revue styled show, and not the occasion to show off much in the way of new material. By the time the ensemble did its tour last summer, however, one song "Got A New Truck," a bouncy ditty Nelson co-wrote with Marcia Ball had been replaced by one of her classics, Memphis Slim's "Mother Earth" which gave her an opportunity for yet another tour de force vocal. (Too bad it's not included here, but I can't complain). In between the vocal tracks are a couple of scorching instrumentals ("GM Blues" and Mandel's "Snake"). Of course, the instrumentalists provide solid backing throughout and have substantial solos in many of the songs, but the instrumental tracks give them their own moment to shine. And they make the most of it. Easy to see how Harvey Mandel came by his nickname "King of the Psycha-Delta Blues." Of course, the greatest nod the group gives to the patriarchs is the addition of longtime blues drumming legend, Sam Lay. Lay does vocals on only two (or perhaps, more accurately, two and a half)tracks, but they are highlights. He does the vocal and percussion on "Gotta Find My Baby," and the album closes with his spirited mini-medley of "Hound Dog" and "Roll Over Beethoven." If you caught the band on tour, you know just how infectious his wry vocal delivery could be. The album conveys a similar excitement, but does leave you wanting more of Sam. Actually, it leaves you wanting more of just about every one, but that's just the nature of this kind of project. The beauty part is that all of these artists have extensive catalogs to check out. BURIED ALIVE is a fine listening experience in itself. It's also a great starting point.

Born In Chicago - featuring Nick Gravenites 2. Buried Alive In The Blues - featuring Nick Gravenites 3. Walk Away - featuring Tracy Nelson 4. Drinking Wine - featuring Nick Gravenites 5. GM Boogie - featuring Barry Goldberg & Harvey Mandel 6. Left Handed Soul - featuring Nick Gravenites 7. Miss You Like The Devil - featuring Tracy Nelson 8. All The Help I Can Get - featuring Tracy Nelson 9. Death Of Muddy Waters - featuring Nick Gravenites 10. Find My Baby - featuring Sam Lay 11. New Truck - featuring Tracy Nelson 12. King Bee - featuring Corky Siegel 13. Snake - featuring Harvey Mandel 14. Hound Dog - featuring Sam Lay


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