The Chicago Blues Reunion comprises musicians who learned their craft at the feet of electric blues legends Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter and then shaped a blues rock fusion with Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield at the fore. For all their credits, hard knocks and credibility with the genre’s masters — not to mention their name — it’s surprising that they present a sprawling and unfocused concert that only intermittently points to the greatness of the Chicago sound.
Nick Gravenites, Sam Lay and Tracy Nelson take turns leading the unit. Gravenites, formerly of the Butterfield Blues Band and with credits that include Janis Joplin and the score to “Steelyard Blues,” was the most commanding of the leaders. His playing and vocals brought out the grit in tunes such as “Born in Chicago” and “Buried Alive in the Blues,” and the band responded to his sharpness with a bonus level of precision. Nelson, who led the band Mother Earth and has had a reasonable career on the fringe of the blues, was pleasant if not captivating. Corky Siegel, the blues harpist, proved to be a steady contributor.
But when the spotlight turned away from Gravenites and Nelson, the Waters-Wolf-Butterfield legacy was shunned as well. Odd material — the swap classic “I’m a King Bee” and early rockers “Hound Dog” and “Roll Over Beethoven” — was a foil for rather uncharacteristically Chicago playing. Guitarist Harvey Mandel is the chief offender, playing in a ’70s arena-rock style more attuned to Robin Trower than Buddy Guy; he’s testament to how blues rock grew bloated with age, removed itself from its roots and became irrelevant.
Deluxe edition of the band’s single release, on Out the Box Records, has a DVD that does a good job explaining these musicians’ backgrounds and the Chicago scene in the ’60s. More of those stories would go a long way in making Reunion shows more rewarding.