Chicago Blues Reunion,
Buried Alive in the Blues
(Out of the Box, 2005)

Hard to believe -- actually, it's downright mindboggling -- but as recently as the early 1960s, no more than a relative handful of Euro-Americans were aware that Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Elmore James, Little Walter and other Chicago blues figures, now universally recognized as American-music royalty, shared nation and planet with them. When they first toured the United States in 1964, the Rolling Stones mentioned to reporters that they hoped to meet Muddy Waters. None of the reporters knew what a "Muddy Waters" was; they weren't even certain that the words were attached to a human being.

How things have changed, and for once immeasurably for the better. My own initial exposure to Chicago blues, like so many of my generation's, was through early Stones albums. Soon, that exposure and my own growing interest in folk-based music led me to Lead Belly, Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Blind Willie McTell, Son House, Muddy, Wolf, both Sonny Boy Williamsons, B.B. King, Albert King and many, many more. I say this by way of explaining why I paid practically no attention to the white blues artists and (predominantly) white outfits that rose to prominence and recording contract in the mid-1960s, first with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, soon thereafter Blues Project, Electric Flag, Canned Heat and Mother Earth, not to mention legions of the less worthy: mobs of pasty-faced, long-haired boogie boys and girls whom one neither remembers nor desires to. Snobbery had something to do with my disdain, naturally, but I also operated under the implicit presumption that white guys doing blues almost defined "inauthentic," a notion I took pretty seriously back then. Besides, it irritated me that white musicians were selling more records by far than the black artists whose music they were recreating.

Well, even now -- given the faddishness and general dumbness of so much of what was happening in those days -- I see such sentiments as not wholly irrational or indefensible. They were, however, blinkered. As I would learn in due course, white men and women have always done the blues, as we know from the early days of the recording industry, and some of them -- Jimmie Rodgers and the great, if far less famous, Frank Hutchison come to mind -- did it well indeed. The salient fact of the matter, moreover, is that blues immortals like Muddy, B.B. and Buddy Guy have consistently expressed genuine respect for the most gifted of the white players. Today the question, once so fiercely debated, feels embarrassingly quaint. Can white guys play the blues? Of course they can, and they do it all the time, and the best of them are as good as anybody.

The principal performers on Buried Alive in the Blues are four Butterfield alumni (Butterfield himself died in 1987 of a drug overdose). They are Nick Gravenites (vocals, guitar); Harvey Mandel (lead guitar); Barry Goldberg (keyboards); and Sam Lay (drums on one cut, lead vocal on two, and the sole African American here). Also present are harmonica ace Corky Siegel and blues belter Tracy Nelson, contemporaries on what Siegel, not without ruefully ironic humor, calls the "North Side blues scene" (blues' native habitat being the South and West Side ghettos).

Nearly all of these (Nashville resident Nelson excepted) long since moved on from Windy City to Bay Area and environs. But on October 15, 2004, backed by a killer rhythm section (Zach Wagner, Rick Reed and Gary Mallaber), they reunited on stage at the legendary suburban-Chicago club FitzGerald's, where they -- as this CD richly documents -- had one hell of a contagious good time, putting in rollicking performances of their own material (including Gravenites' exhilarating title tune and his autobiographical "Born in Chicago") and well-chosen covers (Sticks McGhee's "Wine," Slim Harpo's "I'm a King Bee," among others). If this isn't "authentic" blues, then the concept is a useless one -- as, in truth, it may always have been. Maybe it does after all come down to no more than the simple question of good music or bad music. What we have on Buried is the former in stellar manifestation.

The delights don't stop with the audio disc. A generous companion DVD carries nearly an hour and a half's worth of interviews, live performances, history and vintage Muddy Waters footage. It will grab and keep your attention and make you feel really good besides.

by Jerome Clark
6 May 2006

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