Thursday, March 15, 2007

Buried Alive in the Blues

Chicago Blues Reunion: Buried Alive in the Blues
Eagle Eye Media

Aside from maybe Clarksdale, Mississippi, few towns are as closely associated with the blues as is Chicago. The Windy City has a more vital scene, supporting more venues and musicians. Out of that scene, several young blues artists emerged, achieving a fair amount of rock & roll crossover success. They recently came together again for the Chicago Blues Reunion project and DVD.

The featured musicians of the Chicago Blues Reunion band, Barry Goldberg, Nick Gravenites, Harvey Mandel, Tracy Nelson, Sam Lay, and Corky Siegel, all had shared professional associations in common, the Mike Bloomfield Band being of particular importance. In his commentary B.B. King expresses his regard for the late Bloomfield:

“Mike Bloomfield was like a son. He was like a son—I knew him very well. Mike Bloomfield was one the great young guitarists—great young guitarists . . . Michael Bloomfield to me was on his way to be—sky’s the limit. We lost him too early.”

Of the featured blues artists, Gravenites’ has the more revealing segments. As music critic/on-screen commentator Joel Selvin says of “Born in Chicago:” “when Nick Gravenites talks about his best friend died before he was twenty-one he means it.” Probably better known for writing for others than as a vocalist, he stills belts the blues with the best of them. The subtitle track, “Buried Alive in the Blues,” originally written for Janis Joplin, is one of the standout performances on Reunion.

The credits of the band members are impressive. Drummer Lay recorded on Muddy Waters’ Fathers and Sons album and played with Howlin’ Wolf and James Cotton. Barry Goldberg recounts the experience of sitting in with Bob Dylan on his famous (or notorious) electric debut at the Newport Folk Festival. Arguably the most crossover success was had by Harvey Mandel, a veteran of Canned Heat, who tells of recording with the Rolling Stones and auditioning for the place eventually filled by Ron Woods.

It is worth noting that most of the crossover success for Chicago Blues musicians was had by white musicians like Mandel and Goldberg. Selvin points out some of the historical realities of race relevant to the Chicago Blues scene:

“White musicians picking up on black music had a lot of ramifications that went beyond the strictly musical, but this was going on from literally the beginning of rock & roll . . . the white audience, when they were confronted by this white blues music out of Chicago—they were unaware of Howlin’ Wolf. They knew nothing of Muddy Waters. Little Walter—who’s he? So they were getting their first taste of this music which was so familiar to the black community of Chicago.”

Besides Lay, the musicians of the Reunion band are obviously white. However, the interviews and archival footage suggest they were largely accepted by the predominantly African-American Chicago blues scene. Reunion is an interesting documentary, graced by the recollections of blues legends like the patriotically attired Buddy Guy and King (who retells the fateful origin of his guitar’s famous name in one interview sequence). There are some great performances, notably Gravenites on “Buried Alive on the Blues” and Lay on “I’ve Gotta Find My Baby,” which are also included on a bonus CD. Like many of the featured musicians, Reunion could serve as an accessible introduction to the blues for neophytes.