Harvey Mandel should be as famous as Carlos Santana, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton or any of his cohorts from the 1960s and ‘70s. Somehow he just missed grabbing that ring. That he is low key and not overly prolific has something to do with. When he does come out with a new disc, though, it’s an event.
Mandel traces his history back to sitting in the guitar chair for Charlie Musselwhite’s 1966 debut, Stand Back ! He also cut his first disc with the Barry Goldberg Reunion in ’66 and then released his own debut, Cristo Redentor, in 1968. Later that year he replaced Henry Vestine in Canned Heat and stayed with boogie masters for a year, including for their appearance at Woodstock. In 1970 he joined John Mayall’s Blues Breakers and is on Mayall’s superb USA Union from this period. In 1976, Harvey Mandel was the featured guitarist on the Rolling Stones’ Black and Blue album. That’s him funkin’ it up on “Hot Stuff.” He was one of a few guitarists allowed to audition to join the band at around the same time. In between were a handful of good and not so good albums under his own name. Then, he just sorta disappeared for a while. The release of Twist City in 1993 was his first solo project in nearly 20 years. In 2005 he was involved in the successful recording and subsequent hot ticket tour of the Chicago Blues Reunion, with Barry Goldberg, Nick Gravenites.
The “crew” that Mandel surrounds himself with on this gem of a disc speaks volumes to the esteem in which he is held by his peers. Here are Marcy Levy, Norton Buffalo, Nick Gravenites, Elvin Bishop, Barry Goldberg and a handful of highly regarded front and side men sharing space with the guitar icon on a disc that probably won’t get the props it so richly deserves. Highlights abound. Gravenites lending his impressive vocals to “So Far So Good,” with his old pal Barry Goldberg on organ is a case in point. Mandel’s guitar work is subtly shredding here, propelled by an array of well executed electronic effects. The opening “It Is What It Is,” with Marcy Levy lending her vocal chops and Norton Buffalo his deep harmonica, Mandel’s voodoo-laden guitar works creates a back street New Orleans atmospheric piece. “Baby Batter II” reminds of a psychedelicized Santana and reprises the title tune of a 1971 LP. This is not a predictable recording. It’s an exciting recording!
“Train Wreck ,” with Buffalo lending eerie harp work to match Mandel’s equally compelling guitar is a standout, as is Buffalo’s tasty vocals on “Have You Seen My Baby.” Levy’s back for a killer “Land of the Free,” and Gravenites returns for “I Had a Life,” and a spectacular “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven” is delivered by vocalist Rick Kellogg. “Twizzle Zing” reminds of Jean Luc Ponty with superb violin via Carlos Reyes and keys from Howard Wales.
Buffalo sings and plays on “Laying Around Here With the Blues,” on which Elvin Bishop adds some slick slide. “You’ll Never Know,” with vocals courtesy the Rowan Brothers, has a cool country twinge, and the closer, “Free Flow” is a Mandel tour de force of licks and tricks.
On all of the tunes, it is Harvey Mandel’s guitar work that props, cajoles and motivates. This is clearly the work of a master. He does things on the fret board that very few players on20the scene can get close to. It isn’t just about power blues, it’s about nuance, subtleties and chops that cause the jaw to drop. This is a master work. This is vital.