Chicago to New Orleans

North to south, the Sierra Nevada Big Room had things covered last week

Sam Lay

Sam Lay

Photo By Christine LaPado

Chicago Blues Reunion Sierra Nevada Big Room Wed., July 20 Porter, Batiste & Stoltz Sierra Nevada Big Room Sun., July 24

Last Wednesday night’s Chicago Blues Reunion at the Big Room hit the ground running with a short, kick-ass, G-boogie opener. “This is gonna be good!” one fellow near me was compelled to exclaim.

He was right.

Nick Gravenites

Photo By Christine LaPado

The super-stellar line-up of ‘60s Chicago blues scene legends—vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Nick Gravenites (the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the Electric Flag, Big Brother & the Holding Co., among others), songwriter/Hammond B3 man Barry Goldberg (Charlie Musselwhite, etc.), monster guitarist Harvey “The Snake” Mandel (Charlie Musselwhite, Canned Heat), singer Tracy Nelson (Mother Earth), harmonica player Corky Siegel (Siegel-Schwall Blues Band) and singer/drummer Sam Lay (Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Bob Dylan), supported by rhythm guitarist and emcee for the night Zach Wagner, electric bassist Rick Reed and drummer Gary Mallaber—just let us have it all night long.

Gravenites very early on gave us a version of “Buried Alive in the Blues,” the song he famously wrote for Janis Joplin, which she never got to sing because she died the night before she was supposed to record it on Pearl. With back-up vocals by Nelson and inspired solos by Mandel, Siegel and groovemeister Goldberg, “Buried Alive” was a taste of the really good things to come.

R&B/blues diva Nelson moved to the fore with her stunning vocal ability—as good or better than ever—when she belted out “Miss You Like the Devil,” featuring another great harmonica solo from Siegel, and “Walk Away,” for which she received two mid-song standing ovations.

Harvey Mandel

Photo By Christine LaPado

Siegel, Mandel and Reed, besides constantly serving up their rock-solid, dance-inspiring instrumental work, treated us to great harmony vocals on “Got My Mojo Workin'.” Seventy-years-young Sam Lay—noticeably sparkling in his flamboyant dollar-sign, bling-bling necklace—treated us, among other excellent things, to a rockin’ medley of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Hound Dog” and “Roll Over Beethoven.”

The highlight of the evening, however, had to be during “Mother Earth,” when, after Nelson had just delivered her sultry, ultra-blues-queeny vocal, Siegel prostrated himself before her, serenading her with a reverential harp solo, while audience member Jim Dwyer dramatically fanned them at stage’s edge with a purple Sacramento Kings handkerchief.

“On the funky bass…P!” shouted Porter Batiste Stoltz drummer David Russell Batiste Jr. over his mike to the jacked-up, dancing crowd, referring to phenomenal electric bassist George Porter Jr. during band introductions late in Sunday night’s Big Room funk show. “Back here on the drums…” Batiste continued rhythmically with the band’s driving funk groove, “…B!” The energetic, oft-cackling drummer went on, identifying New Orleans “King of Funk Guitar” Brian Stoltz: “On the guit-tar…S! Heh-heh!”

George Porter

Photo By Christine LaPado

New Orleans jam-funk trio Porter Batiste Stoltz (PBS)—the legendary Funky Meters without keyboardist Art Neville—joked at one point about being fired by both Dr. John and Tori Amos, “so we just do our own thing.” Their “thing” is decidedly balls-to-the-wall and unabashedly rockin'-funky.

From their opener “All We Want to Do” ("All we want to do/ Is get funky for you tonight…” sang bassist Porter in his strong, sensuous, ‘70s-steeped funk voice) to the last songs of their high-volume, three-hour-long show, PBS served up the funky goods to a packed dance floor. The trio’s lengthy performance was a response to the deafening shouts from the audience for more. At one point, three of the group’s roadies, who danced off to the side all night long, were so taken by the infectious groove that they picked up cowbell, shaker and beer-bottle-with-drumstick and played percussion like impromptu, stationery “second liners.”

The vocal harmonies on “Norma’s House” were very cool. I made a note during that song: “Guitar player is crazy,” meaning that Stoltz’s playing was supremely wild and excellent. I was on the dance floor for “Name Up in Lights,” during which my dance partner and I took great delight in singing the catchy repeated line, “I gotta get my name up in lights…” It was on this particular song that Stoltz began to inject a slower, effects-laden, Bill Frisell-ish style of guitar playing into the mix, which broke up the funk at times to pleasant effect. Next up was Curtis Mayfield’s “Check Out Your Mind.” The crowd responded hugely to Porter’s great singing on this one.

PBS even did a version of KC & the Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight,” a song Stoltz claimed to “despise” but played anyway because he “was outvoted 2-to-1.”