Artist: Steve Mann

Title: Alive and Pickin' (BRM CD-110)

Release Date: 2005

Title: Live At The Ash Grove (BRM CD-111)

Release Date: 2008

Label: Bella Roma Music, Berkeley CA

By Barry Smiler

steve_mann_live_at_the_ashgrove.jpgsteve_man_alive_and_pickin.jpgSteve Mann (1943-2009) might be the greatest blues revival guitarist you never heard of. An up-and-coming phenom in mid-1960s Los Angeles, he was poised to hit it big; everyone who heard him was blown away. Listening to these two recordings, it's easy to see why. But it never happened. His story is sometimes compared to that of the Nobel Prize winning mathematician John Nash, which was made into the movie A Beautiful Mind a few years ago. Like Nash, Steve Mann's mental illness became the dominant force in his later life, overshadowing his earlier promise.

Happily though, we do have these two recordings. Most of these cuts are from the 1960s when Steve was at his peak and still performing in concert. There is also one cut on Alive And Pickin' that was recorded in 2004.

Alive and Pickin' is a compilation of cuts from a number of sources. It starts off with a live set (recorded by his old friend Stefan Grossman) that offers a fine sense of Steve's range and power. Starting with a fine Jelly Roll, it moves to Mose Allison's If You Live, a jazz tune - indeed, Steve always said he did a lot of jazz. For example, his Amazing Gospel Tune, also in this set, is pure Ray Charles.

Live At The Ash Grove is, indeed, a recording of a live concert Steve did in 1967 at Ed Pearl's legendary Ash Grove on Melrose in Los Angeles. This was originally issued in 1975 as a vinyl LP, though only 500 copies were pressed. Bella Roma Music has done us a wonderful service by reissuing it, because here, Steve is at the peak of his abilities. Though the recording technology used here was primitive, the music is amazing.

Steve had a phenomenal ability to coax sounds from his guitar. For example, it's well known among guitarists how damned difficult it is to figure out from his few recordings what exactly Robert Johnson was playing, fingerings and such. Steve nails it perfectly. His version of Johnson's Walking Blues (on Ash Grove) is eerily perfect. Not the note-for-note perfect of the scholar, but the perfection of a musician who truly gets it, down to his bones, down to his soul.

Another great example of this is the Lemon Jefferson song he recorded three times on these two CDs, as 99 Year Blues on Ash Grove, as Prison Cell Blues on Alive And Pickin', then later on the same album as part of his Medley for David ... Bromberg, that is, who Erik Frandsen thought should hear Steve play. So, same song, three recordings, two different titles, and a fascinating opportunity to peek into Steve's head. What we find there is the living blues. His arrangement isn't Jefferson's. But the feel is just right. Blues and jazz are all about improvisation, even on something you've played a thousand times before. Making it up fresh on the spot, being right there with what's going on. You've got to have it all the way down.

Steve Mann had it, all right. But then he lost it. As things rose for him musically, mental illness fell, and fell hard. He spent the next thirty years institutionalized. I asked Steve once what exactly went wrong. He answered, straight to the point, "schizophrenia." It robbed him of half his life, and us of what might have been.

In his last few years Steve was able to live at least somewhat on his own, mostly in the Berkeley area, with loving help and support from various people in the local music community who remembered him from the old days. Janet Smith, perhaps Steve's biggest champion, managed to acquire the rights to some of Steve's old recordings, not just the released albums but live tapes from concerts and rehearsals, including three stunning cuts recorded in 1964 with a then-unknown Texan named Janis Joplin. These three cuts, Two Nineteen Train, Trouble In Mind, and Jelly Roll Morton's classic Winin' Boy Blues are for me some of the highlights of Alive And Pickin'.

Though most of the songs here are taken from the well-known established repertoire of blues and jazz, there are a number of Steve's own tunes.Mann_Made.jpg

His classic Holly is here, of course (on Alive And Pickin') but one of my favorites is Here I am Again (ditto) which beautifully blends a sad, ironic, yet hopeful lyric with the kind of graceful and heartfelt arrangement without which Randy Newman wouldn't exist. Of course, Newman plays piano, and Steve managed to produce the same rich fullness and sly jazz/blues feel from just his guitar. But that's the kind of magic he did. There's a drawing on Bella Roma's Steve Mann website of Steve with six fingered hands. Not a joke, either. He was that good.

Mose Allison's song If You Live, which starts the earlier of these two albums, says:

If you live a day will come

When the sun will shine

And the crops will grow

Sadly, for Steve Mann that day never really came. But we do have these two fabulous recordings to remember him by. Absolutely recommended.

Notes on the tracks to these recordings can be found on Steve Mann's website