Liz Mandeville: Clarksdale Liner notes
For all its status as the mega-center of blues music, Chicago has to work hard to keep the flame burning. Consider the staggering attrition rate; irreplaceable heroes lost in the past year or so include Hubert Sumlin, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Mojo Buford, Dave Myers, Pinetop Perkins, and David “Honeyboy”Edwards. But on the bright side there’s the annual high-profile festival at Grant Park and activity in clubs (for starters, Buddy Guy’s Legends and House of Blues) and in area recording studios that brings the spirit of the glorious past to ardent life. Long familiar to club-goers, Liz Mandeville maintains a fresh presence on the scene as a stellar singer, an award-winning songwriter, and a talented guitarist.
Pride of place for the most impressive blues album released so far this decade goes to Liz’s new album, Clarksdale, her fifth overall. It was born of a special vibe of self-awareness that Liz experienced during a recent visit to the very heart of the Mississippi Delta. “I had my original love of blues re-ignited,” she says, “when I took a post-surgery step back from my own trail long enough to breath in the deep Southern influence of Clarksdale and its environs.” In town she stayed at the Ratliff family’s Riverside Hotel, where the great Bessie Smith expired after a car accident in 1937 (back then, the building was a hospital for blacks) and where, in ensuing years, music notables such as Ike Turner rented rooms. Liz also soaked up soulful ambience of Gary Vincent’s Clarksdale Sound Stage and Theo D’s Rock & Blues Museum. Versed in the classic blues of early 20th century America as a 1990s student at Columbia College’s Center for Black Music Research, Liz returned to Chicago with a solid new appreciation for Smith and other red hot mamas Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, and Lucille Bogan.
Liz’s dear friend Willie Smith, the shuffle master with Muddy Waters Band, encouraged her to start up her own record label, and follow her own creative instincts in the studio. She enlisted Darryl Wright to play bass and write arrangements for good or excellent original songs Liz had for the record date. “We all had such a jolly time playing together,” she comments, capturing the essence of the experience in just a few words. The three took time off from the session last summer so Willie could do some touring on his own, intending to finish the album later on. It didn’t happen. Willie died last September. “But in the true spirit of the blues,” Liz asserts, “I carried on.” She cut six more songs, three capitalizing on the considerable talent of slide guitar player Donna Herula, her partner in a working duo that represented Chicago at the 2012 International Blues Challenge in Memphis—they were semi-finalists.
What’s striking about Liz’s singing throughout Clarksdale is how she works up dramatic tension in a signature style that has been crafted after probing the creative dimensions of those legendary singers. Liz packs naked emotion into her a cappella singing of “No Fear/Everything.” It’s a brave, inspired gospel-blues performance in which she acutely assesses human nature and comes down on the side of hopefulness. “Clarksdale/Riverside Hotel Blues,” not unexpectedly, finds her caught up in the awesomeness she’d found in Coahoma County—guest pianist Leandro Lopez-Varady shares her enthusiasm. The theatrics Liz brings to her ballad “A Soldier’s Wife” succeeds in deepening the emotional weight of thoughtful lyrics on a topical subject virtually unknown in modern blues; here, Donna slide guitar, characteristically truthful in expression, has something of a gypsy feel. Liz and Donna turn the lazily paced kiss-off tune “Bye Bye Blues” into a sharp little melodrama that makes a persuasive case for return listens.
Moreover, Liz has a ball dispensing salty wit on numbers laden with bawdy food metaphors—savor “Sweet Potato Pie” (esteemed saxophonist Eddie Shaw contributes to the salacious fun) and “Roadhouse Produce Stand” (Willie’s harmonica commentary is outstanding). With acidic pleasure, the singer takes politicians to task for war-mongering on the solo acoustic blues “4:20 Blues,” also confidently playing archtop guitar. With the addition of Chicago blues ace Nick Moss’s spiky guitar, “My Mama Wears Combat Boots” not only salutes women in the armed forces but also “celebrates my friends, my life and love in the blues.” Amen to that.