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Nick Gravenites — Rogue Blues


Pop quiz!

 

With whom does Nick Gravenites have ties?


A) the Electric Flag: a stylistic whirlpool set in motion by Mike Bloomfield

B) Quicksilver Messenger Service: the noted Bay Area psychedelicians

C) the Paul Butterfield Blues Band: South Side Chicago rewired for new-generation ears

D) Otis Rush: West Side bluesman/guitar god/devastator extraordinaire


E) Big Brother & the Holding Company: another in San Fran’s lysergic-ballroom brigade

F) Pure Prairie League: purveyors of 1975’s earworm “Amie”

 

Trick question, sorry. The answer is—quite amazingly—all of the above, be it by way of performing, songwriting and/or producing. Yes, Gravenites has kept very busy over the decades. Yet atop all that hustling, he still has plenty of gas left in the tank, even with the odometer registering 85 years old.

 

Rogue Blues, recorded over the last two years, is a genuine charmer, radiating the warm, easy and utterly natural ambiance of a close clutch of blues-loving friends simply laying it down for the sheer fun of it. These 28 minutes could well have broken out simply upon Nick grumbling that age-old line passed down from bluesman to bluesman: “I’m a poor boy long way from home.” However, the session does represent a swerve from how we’ve grown accustomed to hearing Gravenites over the years. That is: with a guitar and a likewise amped-up band.

 

But you play the hand you’ve been dealt. So, no longer able to handle guitar, Nick adapts brilliantly by strictly concentrating on singing. That in-demand voice—that’s him belting at 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival with Electric Flag and bawling Big Brothers’ Be a Brother, in 1970, for instance—has only grown all the more sinewed with honorable wear, upping the credibility of his seven tales of woe. Here, the music unplugs and draws in close, gathering around the ever-present pump of Pete Sears’ piano. Charlie Musselwhite’s harmonica occasionally fills in any deep crevices left between the drums and bass. And whenever a guitar is called for, Jimmy Vivino is there with a crisp lick or the zing of his bottleneck slide.

 

A few songs come specially furnished. Like the extra-plump sousaphone, around which a clarinet buzzes, that imparts “Blackberry Jam” with its heavy waddle. (Those deep blasts, however, play no role in how such a seemingly sweet title has far less wholesome things on its mind.) No matter how light and filigreed the breeze coming off a cantina-flavored accordion is, the wine-stained dreams swigged from a “Brown Paper Bag” remain deflated. A pedal-steel guitar turns “What Time Is It” into the kind of beery weeper that keeps honky-tonk jukeboxes fed with quarters all night long. And speaking of time: Time has come today for Lester Chambers—of psychedelic-soul fame with his siblings in the Chambers Brothers—to echo the downturned mood of “Left Hand Soul” with his forlorn harmonica solo.

 

Rewind to the start, though. Many moons ago, Chess Records commissioned Gravenites to compose two original verses for “Poor Boy.” Howlin’ Wolf then took them overseas with him in 1970 and recorded them in the company of Hubert Sumlin, Eric Clapton, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts, and others as part of The London Sessions.

 

Now, Nick gets to deliver those very verses himself. And on his own record, where he sounds empowered, even when trumpeting out lines about the storyteller’s threadbare, half-starved existence. His tone forcefully shoves lyrics through the surrounding fray, shaking select phrases with vibrato for good measure. All the while, Sears and Musselwhite constantly engage in their own rousing dialogue, interlocking riffs right to the dire end, when Charlie’s harp tacks on a curlicue pirouette right before Pete’s piano plunks down the final note. It’s a showpiece for sure.

 

Thanks for going Rogue, Nick.

 

Label: M.C. Records

Release Date: 4/5/24

Artist Website: www.nickgravenites.com

 

Reviewed by Dennis Rozanski




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