By Martine Ehrenclou
I had the pleasure of interviewing Harvey Mandel in anticipation of his upcoming concert, the Chicago Blues Reunion that will feature Mandel and other great blues musicians on May 12, 2017, the Arcada Theater, St. Charles, IL. It is a collaboration of Chicago music legends who defined the sound of their generation in the 1960’s. It is an evening not to be missed. If I were anywhere near Illinois, you bet I’d be there.
Mandel is considered one of the most influential electric guitarists in the country. He’s played alongside such greats as BB King, Albert King, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, Steve Miller, and Little Walter, and has recorded with the Rolling Stones, and toured with John Mayall & the Blues Breakers. He was a member of Canned Heat and was the original guitarist for Charlie Musselwhite’s South Side Band. The impressive list is too long to fully capture here.
Mandel’s discography reads like a who’s who of blues, rock, psychedelic blues, and jazz. With 18 albums to his name, Harvey Mandel is regarded not just as a guitar virtuoso with a trail blazing improvisational style but as a highly respected musical innovator. Just to refresh your memory, he used two-handed fret board tapping long before Eddie Van Halen or Steve Vai.
Martine: Tell me about your upcoming Chicago Blues Reunion (CBR.)
Harvey: Myself, vocalist and guitarist, Nick Gravenites (Paul Butterfield,) and on keys, Barry Goldberg (The Rides, Bob Dylan)–we’re the founders of CBR. We added Gary Mallaber on drums (Steve Miller, Van Morrison,) Rick Reed on bass (Paul Butterfield) and Rob Stone on harp and vocals (Coco Taylor, Hubert Sumlin.) At different times we use special guests like for this show coming up, we have Sugar Blue, who’s a famous harmonica player and played on the song, “Miss You” by the Rolling Stones. And when we can, we get Charlie Musselwhite in there.
Martine: How many years have you done CBR?
Harvey: It’s been going on and off for the last five to six years. We did a couple of tours when we first got together. Mostly we are waiting for the movie. We have a lot of people interested in booking and doing things with the band but the movie will make a giant difference to get the ball rolling.
Martine: Do you know when the movie will be coming out?
Harvey: It’s supposed to be coming out every year for last five years (laughs.) Started from a documentary and now it’s a movie with Dan Aykroyd as the narrator, which adds a bit of Hollywood. It should be quite good when its finished.
Martine: That sounds very cool. I’ve read quite a bit about Chicago Blues Reunion and about your history. In your opinion, what is the CBR all about?
Harvey: We are the original white boys that got into the blues scene in the early 60’s. Myself, Barry Goldberg, Nick Gravenites, Mike Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield, Steve Miller, Elvin Bishop–we are the original guys that started it off for the white guys. After that everyone copied. The Rolling Stones copied. Different groups started doing Muddy Waters’ songs. The truth is we grew up in that era with those main people and we’re the ones doing it now, so to speak.
Martine: That’s quite an impressive list of players. What’s your favorite aspect of the Chicago Blues Reunion? Playing with friends? Playing the blues? Your own music?
Harvey: I like playing everything. I like doing my own Harvey Mandel stuff, which is a combination of blues & jazz & more progressive. Chicago Blues Reunion is more straight ahead blues. But I enjoy both. I enjoy doing both styles. Either one makes me happy as long as we’re doing it.
Martine: Which songs do you think will be performed for the concert? Yours or by other blues players?
Harvey: I’m sure we’ll do a few a few Harvey Mandel songs like, “Wade in the Water,” “Christo Redentor,” this other song called, “Freak of Dawn,” which is one of the songs on one of my new albums that’s just come out. And then we’ll do Nick Gravenites’ song, “Born in Chicago.” We’ll be playing a lot of traditional blues.
Martine: Sounds like a fun evening.
Harvey: Yeah, it’ll be good.
Martine: Tell me about CBR’s inception.
Harvey: The couple of tours we did originally four to five years ago were really great, it was a lot of fun. We had great audiences and people loved it. It was actually a really good time. Being on the road sometimes can be a drag. In this case it actually was fun.
Martine: Tell me about that time. Did you take it on the road all over the country or in specific parts?
Harvey: Not everywhere but we went all the way back east. We had a bus. It was kind of fun traveling on the bus with the band. There have been a few bus tours here and there, and with Canned Heat too back in the day. It’s kind of fun not having to deal with airports all the time and being able to sleep and get to a nice hotel. It had its good points.
Martine: Are there certain parts of the country that respond more to traditional blues and your music or do you find across the board that people go crazy over it?
Harvey: It’s pretty much across the board. It’s appreciated everywhere. If you’re a good band and you’re playing good and you’re in the right place, you’ll be appreciated. We play as long as they let us.
Martine: You’ve had some serious medical issues, namely a rare, invasive, nasal cancer. Do you want to talk about where you are with that?
Harvey: I’ve had a million operations, gone through a few medical disasters. I’m actually in the best spot I’ve been in the last three years. I will never look exactly as I used to, that’s for sure, but I’m actually okay and I’m cancer free as far as I know.
Martine: I’m really glad to hear that. Congratulations.
Harvey: But I’ve had a lot of reconstruction surgeries. So, hopefully it stays away and doesn’t give me any more problems. I’m stronger. God still lets me be able to play. No matter how weird I was on other levels I was still able to play. I did the record, Snake Pit, about six to seven months ago–some of the best stuff I recorded in the last 15-20 years. There’s another album that recently came out called Snake Attack that I recorded in my home studio where I’m doing all the instruments. Everything is electronic. Bass, drums, I played keyboards, strings, and played the live guitar. It’s quite a good one. I think people will appreciate it.
Snake Pit is a whole ‘nother world. It’s like live. It was done in the studio, Fantasy Studios, and it was literally a live recording. We only did one or two takes of every song.
On Snake Attack I do all live guitar. It’s really cool because I was able to do two, three, four guitar parts. When I’m playing live there’s only one guitar. Two different styles.
Snake Pit came out great. Way better than I expected. That’s the album that’s selling all over the world. Snake Attack is just starting out.
Martine: You have a fundraising campaign to help with your medical bills. Are you still in need?
Harvey: There are one or two more operations that I’m going to have to deal with down the road. The truth is I could use the help financially. If it wasn’t for help from certain people…I’ve literally had 34 operations.
Martine: Oh my goodness.
Harvey: I can’t even believe it myself. It’s like ridiculous.
Martine: That’s way too much for one person to go through.
Harvey: Yeah, It was like every month to six weeks for a while. Finally, I’m just starting to get my strength back and feel normal again. How I got through all that without more problems I don’t know, but I did. It’s a miracle.
Martine: It is. Congratulations. With 34 surgeries, your medical expenses must have been astronomical. Even with insurance, there are such high out of pocket costs.
Harvey: The problem is the doctors I’m going to don’t take Medicare–they only take private insurance or cash. So that completely leaves me out. They charge giant numbers. You want a really good doctor, you gotta pay out of pocket.
I started going to doctors through Medicare in San Francisco who were highly recommended. But when it came time for treatment, the doctors there told me themselves that if I wanted the real guys that I should go to a surgeon in my hometown of Chicago who was famous for rare cancers like mine.
Unfortunately, I started out with him and I think he was at the tail end of his expertise and losing it. I went through one (medical) disaster after another. He did the first 30 operations. The good thing the first guy did was he got rid of the cancer. The hard part is the reconstruction surgery.
But by the time he was done and I had to be reconstructed, I kept getting infections like MRSA. Every weird thing that could have happened happened. This past year, I went to a new surgeon who did more for me in the last four surgeries than the first 30.
Martine: You’ve been through so much.
Harvey: I’m back on track now at least. And feeling better. On the road. Down the line, I’ll need a couple more reconstructions. I’ll need help with that one way or another. It’s been a miracle. Between my friends and funding I’ve probably spent at least $60-70,000 on these doctors.
Martine: That’s in cash.
Martine: I’m happy you found the new surgeon and have good success with him. And that you’re feeling better.
Harvey: The new surgeon will be at the concert too. I’ll say hi to him.
Martine: That’s awesome. I’m sure he’ll be thrilled to see you up there on stage.
Harvey: I want to mention too that the Chicago Blues Reunions and the movie are all due to Timm Martin who is the president of Out of the Box Records. He’s the one that’s running the movie thing, he’s the catalyst behind all those jobs, the records we did with CBR, and everything we’ve done with Chicago Blues Reunions. He’s helped me immensely with the doctor thing. I can’t begin to tell you. If it weren’t for him, it would have all been over.
Harvey Mandel’s fundraising website for his medical bills http://www.helpharveymandel.com/Home.html
Chicago Blues Reunion is May 12, 2017 at the Arcada Theater, St. Charles, Il. For more information and tickets see http://www.arcadalive.com/event/chicago-blues-reunion/
Harvey Mandel’s website http://www.harveymandel.com