Harvey Mandel’s story is one of the most intriguing in the world of rock guitar. At 20 he was playing with blues harmonica master Charlie Musselwhite. Later, he joined Canned Heat and, for a time, was pegged as a replacement for Mick Taylor in the Rolling Stones (he appears on the 1976 platter Black and Blue). Mandel employed two-handed tapping in his playing before Edward Van Halen’s “Eruption” became the must-learn piece for guitarists of a certain age. He cut a series of superior solo efforts, including Baby Batter and The Snake, though he never quite broke cult status.
Listening to Snake Pit, his first widely-released effort in 20 years, you realize that Mandel is a true artist: Nothing has dimmed his passion. That’s evident from the first notes of “Snake Pit”, where the guitarist plays with both the fire and wonder of a beginner and the skill of a full-on master. His fat tone and ability to bend and twist melody in directions that beggar belief easily places the tune at the top of the must-hear tracks of 2016, to say nothing of its own place in the artist’s oeuvre. The newcomer receives an excellent introduction to all that Mandel does in his compositions: Traces of blues and boogie swim beside colorful splashes of jazz and melodic runs that nearly break the understanding of the East-West musical axis most mortals have.
Equally fearless is “Space Monkeys”, which lays waste to pretty much everything you’ve ever thought about two-handed tapping. What got lost along the way, through generations of players, was the soul Mandel exhibits when he brings the right hand up to the neck and hammers away with an attack that inspires more than its share of appreciative head nods and wide-eyed glances. The soul that’s evident there is also present on the ballad-ish “NightinGail”.
Mandel’s phrasing is on par with Jeff Beck’s work on classic long-players such as Wired and Blow By Blow as he makes you feel each note and fall into heavy contemplation of the spaces between. You can hear work of a similar quality on “Baby Batter”. Though the guitar tone will perhaps summon comparisons to a bygone era it is firmly and fully something that few players in this day and age hold in their arsenals. “JackHammer” displays more fire and fluidity with some especially lyrical six-string work on the outro.
Though Mandel clearly stands as his own man, one can’t help but draw comparisons between him and another guitar-slinger who rose up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Roy Buchanan. “Buckaroo” carries the same spare soulfulness as songs heard on the late slinger’s 1972 Polydor debut. Here, the instrument cries, sings, yowls, howls and does all manner of emotive expression while Mandel never loses sight of the tune itself. It is, essentially, a blues number but, as with so much of what this artist has done, that’s not an exact enough designation for the music. Hearing him glide in and around keyboardist Ben Boye’s equally soulful lines may be the “it” moment for this collection, though there are many to choose from.
Even the record’s least impressive composition, “Before Six”, still manages to excite the fur on the back of one’s neck with trademark Mandel-isms flying about. There’s a sense that we’ve heard this before, in the boogie and blues biz of the ‘70s and yet there’s something unfamiliar too, as though we’re catching a glimpse of a style of the future. Though the closing “Ode To B.B.” probably summons ideas about Mandel trying his best to imitate the late King, those ideas are wrong. Instead, Mandel goes for the best parts of his singular style and uses them to elevate the memory and spirit of his apparent hero.
One is tempted to believe that the 71-year-old guitarist must have surely played everything he could on the instrument by the time that number ends. What more could you hear from a player who seems to have put all the passion of a lifetime into these songs. But the faithful listener has been here before: This is how one usually feels at the end of a Mandel record, considering the possibility that there is nowhere else for the instrument or the player to go but knowing that a true giant like this one, a musical seeker like this one, will find a way to prove doubters wrong.