One of the major proponents of contemporary blues-rock guitar, Harvey Mandel
has some impressive credentials nonetheless. Cutting his teeth in the Chicago well-spring of the blues, he collaborated with harpist Charlie Musselwhite
, among others in that scene and subsequently became a pivotal member of Canned Heat
around the apogee of their career, including their appearance at Woodstock 1969. He also played with the John Mayall
, as 'The Godfather of British Blues.' was exploring variations on his own long-stated theme of loyalty to the genre with albums such as Back to the Roots
Mandel's string of solo albums was temporarily interrupted when he recorded with/auditioned for the Rolling Stones
upon the departure of Mick Taylor
around Black & Blue
(Rolling Stones, 1976) and while he has often recorded under his own name, Snake Pit
represents his first widely-distributed work in close to two decades. Consisting of eight self-composed tracks recorded in just two days at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley CA, the efficiency of the recordings arises from the musicianly pragmatism of playing with a group of players all familiar with each other through collaboration with a young Windy City-based artist, Ryley Walker.
As with the prime studio resources, including co-production with Josh Rosenthal and the expert mastering of George Horn), Mandel utilizes the novelty of the ensemble's meeting-they had never met much less rehearsed prior to the sessions-to the best possible effect. The titlesong, in fact, opens the record in explosive fashion from which the frontman reminds why he's nicknamed "The Snake" uncoiling sinuous guitar lines that weave in and out of sweet melody and biting edge. And while Anton Hatwich's bass rumbles beneath, alongside Ryan Jewell's drums, Ben Boye effectively brightens the sound with crisp electric piano.
This track is a guitar-hero worshiper's dream, but that's ultimately too restrictive a description, even though the tapping technique Harvey Mandel's perfected over the years, opening "Space Monkeys," will no doubt elicit awe from fretboarders. There's a definite sense of the whole ensemble taking flight here and making music rather than simply indulging in technique for its own sake, an impression reaffirmed with a slower, softer mood piece appropriately titled "NightinGail."
As carefully noted in the credits on this striking CD cover (front and back), 'real strings,' arranged and performed by Dick Bright, accentuate the delicacy of the piece, as does Mandel's relative prominence in the arrangement: the guitarist's humility does not in any way detract from the importance of his restrained playing on this track, notably one of the longer cuts within this set of pithy tracks comprising Snake Pit
"Baby Batter" was the title of an early Harvey Mandel album (Janus, 1971) and by the time it rolls around in this all-instrumental, forty-minute song sequence, it's impossible not to think of Jeff Beck's pivotal album Blow by Blow
(Epic, 1975); not that this record is anything so groundbreaking, but the purity of its intentions and execution (not to mention the sparing production including the aforementioned orchestration) are certainly comparable, as is the fluid invention on exhibit in this cut and the more straightforward rocking of "Jackhammer."
The presence of second guitarist Brian J Sulpizio as well as conga player Jose Najera keep the band in motion as much as they contribute to fleshing out the sound, their own understated contributions in line with Harvey Mandel's spontaneous but confident overall approach. The slow blues here, "Buckaroo," may be inevitable but Snake Pit
wouldn't be complete without it and, as on the loping shuffle "Ode to B.B.," it's not predictable in the least, only the crowning touch on an estimable, and no doubt durable, piece of work.