Ever evolving

March 14, 2008


If you want to follow the roots of the Chicago Blues Reunion, you have to go back to weekend afternoons in the early '60s at the Jazz Record Mart's old location on Grand Avenue and the chance meetings of a group of enthusiastic young blues fans including Barry Goldberg, who lived at Foster and Sheridan at the time, and Mike Bloomfield, a curly-haired kid from the suburbs.

"We all sort of met each other at Bob Koester's record store, and we all had this amazing passion for Chicago blues," Goldberg recalls. "Rock 'n' roll was bad enough, but when our parents started to hear Howlin' Wolf howling in our bedroom like that, they really got concerned! Mike and I were in high school, and we were in rival teenage rock 'n' roll bands. We just started talking about the blues, and it was wonderful, because we were from Chicago, and all of that music was happening just a few miles away -- though it might as well have been a thousand miles, because in those days, no one ever really crossed those borders."

Goldberg and Bloomfield did cross those borders, along with several of their friends, eventually studying and sitting in with blues legends such as Wolf, Muddy Waters and Otis Rush at clubs like Silvio's and Pepper's.

Eventually, they learned enough to set out on their own: After his stint in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, guitarist Bloomfield formed the Electric Flag with organist Goldberg, vocalist Nick Gravenites and drummer Buddy Miles, who died last month at age 60. And though that version of the band only lasted long enough to record one album ("A Long Time Comin' " in 1968) and play only one really prestigious gig (the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967), it made its mark by being among the first to merge the traditions of Chicago blues with the innovations of psychedelic rock.

"Eventually, we liked to think we returned the favor," Goldberg says. "When Big John's opened on the North Side, we talked them into booking the Wolf and Muddy and Otis, and that exposed them to a larger audience. And eventually, when we left Chicago to play at the Fillmore West with the Electric Flag, we got Bill Graham to book those guys. Anyway, that's how we sort of all met, and this group I have now, we're the ones that have, thank God, survived and banded together in the tradition of Michael [Bloomfield, who died in 1981] and Paul [who died in 1987] and with reverence to them and Muddy and all our other great teachers to celebrate this blue-rock tradition and carry it on."

When the keyboardist left the Electric Flag at the same time Bloomfield quit in 1968, he started Barry Goldberg's Blues Reunion, the first of a long list of musical adventures dating to the present and including his current band, Chicago Blues Reunion, whose membership is completed by Gravenites, Corky Siegel on harmonica, Harvey Mandel on guitar, Butterfield veteran Rick Reed on bass and Gary Mallaber of the Steve Miller Band, among others, on drums.

This all-star group is coming back to its old home town to perform a special show at the Park West next week that will be documented on CD and DVD, with a portion of the proceeds from the gig benefiting the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. Given the incredible resumes of everyone in the band, how does Goldberg even begin to put together a set list?

"I just try to keep everybody's interests in mind and consider what they all like to play. They're all very different, but I try to incorporate some of what everybody loves... My goal whenever we get up there is for all of us to look at each and say, 'Man, we're still alive, we can still play together and we can still groove and get each other off!' "

When the 67-year-old Goldberg talks about the band, he still sounds like the super-enthusiastic teenager scouring the racks at the Jazz Record Mart, and this may be the most inspiring part of his legacy. He was never threatened by new sounds; among the other points of pride on his resume are his role in the backing band during the controversial 1965 gig when Bob Dylan plugged in and went electric at the Newport Folk Festival, and his session work on the Ramones' Phil Spector-produced "End of the Century" album in 1980. And he still hasn't stopped listening and growing.

"Oh man, I love the music happening now, because I love the enthusiasm and the energy. When I hear something great on the radio and it's rock 'n' roll, I still have the same feeling I had when I was in high school! I do these jam sessions in Laurel Canyon where I used to play with Crazy Horse in a young hippie pad, but now Chris Robinson is the singer, and guys from Wilco, guys from Oasis, Pearl Jam, Jonathan Rice and Jenny Lewis -- everybody comes over! All these kids, they come in, and I'm the like the grandfather. But my heart... it's like I start to cry, because here are these young hippie kids and they all pick up instruments and we jam on 'Turn On Your Love Light' for an hour.

"They're trying to do something. They listen. They have vinyl! They go deep, and I respect them so much for their love of music. They have that passion." And so does Goldberg.