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In our 'Re: View' section, in which we reflect upon albums from the past, Lisa Torem examines 'Chicago Anthology', a recently reissued live compilation album which was recorded at Big John's, a legendary blues club, in 1966
Imagine Big John’s in the mid-1960s; a bursting-at-the-seams Chicago watering hole in the buzzing Old Town neighborhood, where white and black blues legends performed set after set. On any given night, crowds gathered and snaked around the block to hear Little Walter, Sam Lay, James Cotton and many more.
‘Chicago Anthology: Recorded Live at Big John’s, Chicago’, brings back the vitality and raw spirit of that magical era by showcasing tunes made famous by several of those magicians: organist Barry Goldberg, electric guitarist Harvey Mandel, blues harpist Charlie Musselwhite and others.
Don’t forget that these musicians are still going strong. Musselwhite was awarded a Grammy for Best Blues Album on his project with Ben Harper this year. Harvey “The Snake” Mandel, who has played with Musselwhite, Canned Heat, the Stones and John Mayall, also still performs and records. Mandel played his ferocious brand of guitar behind Bob Dylan at the famed Newport Folk Festival when the songwriter shocked his audience by playing an electric guitar. As a teen, Mandel played alongside Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and many other Chicago blues greats.
Goldberg and Mandel toured with the Chicago Blues Reunion along with Nick Gravenites and Corky Siegel in the mid-millennium and continue to reassemble the band when the spirit moves them. So even though the Chicago powers-that-be tore down the famed nightclub, Big John’s, in September 1966 shortly after this album was recorded, the wider local community, and it appears, the world at large won’t allow these memories to slither away.
To that end, ‘Chicago Anthology’ is an important album. It consists of eight songs. ‘Big Boss Man’ is probably the one with the biggest kick and a perfect choice for an opening track. Lead guitarist Bobby Jones adds his creativity to the mix, and we’re introduced to sharp bassist Roy Ruby. The theme is universal. “You got me working, boss man, minding the clock/But I gotta get a drink of water before I drop.” Funky keyboards, fierce drum rolls and gutsy vocals make this an instant inspiration.
‘Times I’ve Had’ is toned down and features Goldberg on acoustic piano and guitarist Dave Brian. Here the album veers off in a different direction and comes off as a quasi-protest song laden with harmonies and an ambling tone. The vocals are sung by the Day Jobbers ASC. (They do a fine job on this song, considering the style, but are miscast when they do lead vocals on the typically passionate ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’.)
‘Funk’ is pure joy. It features the insistent sax line of Cliff Davis, which makes it a bonafide keeper. The call and response between organ and drums is unforgettable. Mandel is at his extroverted and experimental finest on his solo. ‘I Loved and Lost’ features talented Bobby Jones again at the helm. Pay attention to the tear-stained lyrics: “I’m an empty shell to anyone new/ I’ll never love again.” With a set up like that, how can you not melt? The lead vocal, which is so convincing and compelling, is performed in a 50’s style monologue.
‘Slow Down I’m Gonna Lose You’ is another infectious killer. It’s a curious blend of soul/blues with bellowing, muscular guitar and an all-out cacophonous outro thrown in for good measure. ‘Aunt Lily’ and ‘You Got Me Crying’ are performed solely with Goldberg, Ruby and drummer Maurice McKinley. It was a good idea to switch it up. The latter is a delightful, compact instrumental.
The penultimate ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ doesn’t hold a candle to the Muddy Water’s version, but is nevertheless vibrant. Unfortunately, the mediocre vocals contributed by the Day Jobbers ASC don’t do this relic justice. Still, the band plays on damn straight.
‘Chicago Anthology' is a natural chunk of integral Chicago history in a neat, bluesy package. It’s a bit roughhewn in places, but that’s exactly how it was back in the day and, thankfully, nobody here has tried to homogenize it.