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FEATURES -- Inside the blues with Liz Mandeville

Inside the Blues with Liz

Chicago Blues Guide is happy to have Chicago blues artist Liz Mandeville as our new columnist.  A true renaissance woman, Liz is a sultry singer, award-winning songwriter, guitarist, journalist, painter, educator and all around bon vivant. She has performed all over the world and has four CDs on the Earwig Music label to her credit.  With each column, Liz takes us behind the scenes of Chicago blues and beyond, to share unique insights from people who have dedicated their lives to the blues.

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Photo by: Eric Steiner

When I Had the Blues Throwed On Me

By Liz Mandeville

Someone once said “Life is what happens when we’re making other plans.”

I had never planned for a life in the blues. I was thinking more along the lines of “college degree in Urban Planning” with a minor in media. I was thinking “make a difference” in the community during the day. Evenings would be spent strumming the guitar in my living room with friends just for fun, but all that changed the night I got the Blues throwed on me.

 It was a time, long ago, a time of vinyl records and peace signs, when Frampton Comes Alive was blaring from every stereo.  I was in love with a long haired hippie boy named Eric Burnhart. A whole bunch of us idealistic hippie children used to rent various houses in small rural towns in Wisconsin. We lived for art and music in make-shift families working odd jobs and playing guitars. Periodically we would all congregate at one of these rental houses. Vegetarian cuisine would be cooked. Gallons of beer would be drunk. Home-grown ditch weed would be rolled and passed. Acoustic instruments would then be tuned and played till dawn.

Tom was into Dylan, David loved the Stones. One semester he turned us all on to Bob Marley while Owen played the banjo and Amy fiddled. Me, I played this Mississippi John Hurt song with the hammer -on.  I sang Mahalia’s “I Come to The Garden Alone” and this song I’d written about a Texan I’d been in love with previously. To me it was all folk music, all hopeful, heart broke, hurt feelings, been done wrong but I ain’t dead yet songs. But I didn’t know the blues. I’d never really had the blues throwed on me.

Eric Burnhart’s eyes were blue as Frank Sinatra’s and he wore the golden tan of a man who walked his dog in the summer fields without shirt, shades or brim. He could roll a perfect drum cigarette with one hand while driving a pick-up truck down a dirt road. Not only that, Eric played “Trouble In Mind” on the slide guitar and blew the blues harp so lonesome sounding it made you want to comfort him in the tenderest way right there. I was stupid mad for him. In short, if Eric Burnhart had said to me “I have two tickets to Hell see the Devil, care to join me?” I’d a-been half way into my coat. So naturally, when Eric said to me, “I got two tickets to see this guy Luther Allison at the Hotel. Care to join me?” I was ready to go.

The night arrived, we stood in line. I had never heard of Luther Allison and didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t care, I was out with Eric Burnhart. When we got into the hotel’s basement ballroom the place was packed. It was wall to wall, every bar stool, every table, every inch of wall space was occupied. The smells of patchouli, beer and sweat filled the funky air. Everybody was smoking cigarettes and reefers too, so the place was covered in a day glow, black light infused wash of gray haze.  It was like being inside a captive Aurora Borealis. Huge black boxes of speakers were stacked on either side of the stage, which had a black velvet backdrop and was bathed in the prismatic reflections of a mirror ball. In front of the stage long tables had been set up with rows of seats down each side, now occupied by leather clad bikers and blue denim babes. Sweating barmaids in low slung bell bottoms wended up and down the aisles, balancing trays full of beer above their heads. The crowd was oiled and ready to party! But I only had eyes for Eric, the place could’ve been on fire and I’d a kept on with him.

A ripple went through the crowd. The band came out and took the stand, they started playing a vamp and somebody made an announcement introducing Luther. Out of the haze comes this milk chocolate, guitar playing brotha, dressed in a beautiful, tailored, sharkskin suit. He immediately bursts into a sweat and starts singing with this cryin’ trembling tenor, his guitar echoing his cries. From the first song the whole place was electrified! Still screaming on his guitar, he walked off the stage down the long tables. He walked up the stairs and out the door to the street and then he came back in. He never missed a lick. He played on his knees, he walked the bar, he sang like his life depended on it. All the while, a roadie is following him, reeling out and reeling in the twenty miles of guitar chord Luther is attached to.

He wailed with such intensity and passion that I forgot all about Eric Burnhart! Along with everybody else in that room, I was mesmerized. I was dancing. I was caught in the waves of rhythm that Luther created and controlled like a Greek god controlling nature. The room, reeling with strobe lights, thickened with smoke, stuffed with writhing humans, electrified by Luther’s Blues, throbbed with a heaviness I’d never experienced before. This was the Blues and he done throwed ‘em on me!

I don’t know what ever happened to Eric Burnhart. I didn’t see him very much after that night. You could say the blues bug bit me.  You could say I got a taste and I was hooked. It wasn’t long after that amazing concert, the one in which Luther Allison took the stage and played for 3 hours without taking a break (if you played in Luther’s band you’d better have a strong bladder) the one where he was called back for encore after encore, the one where he throwed the blues on Oshkosh Wisconsin, not long after that show is when I moved to Chicago and started a whole new life. But that’s another story.

Copyright 2008: Liz Mandeville

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