The folks at Amazon always discourage referencing previous reviews for various reasons--but one big one certainly is that those other reviews sometimes seem to just disappear. And then you've got egg on your face. Why does this happen? Usually, I understand, it's because the author of same has opted to delete his or her critique (maybe there was a change of heart or maybe just too much hate mail). Sometimes an irrelevant or morally reprehensible tract in the guise of a review might be successfully challenged by another customer, but that--I suspect--is rarer.
Amid all the five star reviews for this revue style project featuring veterans of the 60s "Northside" Chicago blues scene was at least one negative review wherein the commentator opined that a TRUE "Chicago reunion" was impossible since most of the real progenitors of Chicago blues have longsince gone to that juke joint in the sky.
Now call me perverse, but I sometimes find negative reviews more "helpful" than glowingly positive ones--even when I basically disagree with them. Or rather, especially when I disagree with them. Unlike the typical "this is so great" kind of review, I am oft times forced to think through my own impressions of the work at hand and maybe even come up with some kind of response (which I may or may not ever actually post, but at least it gets me THINKING.) So I did not object too stringently to that particular reviewers comments. I tried to do the grown-up thing and actually consider them.
And of course, the guy had a point that even the artists on this record implicitly acknowledge. You remember the old blues supersession album FATHERS AND SONS? Well, these guys are the first to admit that they are "the sons" (Ok, so there's a "daughter" in the mix as well). That's why singer/songwriter Nick Gravenites talks about helping to create the "NORTHSIDE" blues scene. 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. That was the music the then new generation of blues artists (and blues influenced rockers) was cutting its teeth on. And this new generation of (yes, usually white) blues artists--which included Gravenites, Corky Siegel, Barry Goldberg and Harvey Mandel (all onboard for this project), alongside others like Mike Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield and Charlie Musselwhite--can be said to be the proud heirs of the blues tradition. None would claim otherwise, but they did help establish a burgeoning music scene in Chicago around that time (mid- to late 60s).
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," since I'm told that's his nickname.
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 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'm not complaining. Anyone wanting to sample more of Tracy's live vocals can check out her LIVE FROM CELL BLOCK D release from '03).
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 from this legendary figure.
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, most of which is just a click away. BURIED ALIVE is a fine listening experience in itself. It's also a great starting point.