This guy's one of folk blues more unusual stories. A very talented fingerpicker who slides time signatures all over the place without ever losing the song while singing in a slightly-goofy-guy-next-door voice, he was a fixture at the Ash Grove in the 60s, and this collection ranges the four decades from 1964 to 2004, packed with surprises - not the least of which are extremely valuable and revealing cuts of Janis Joplin singing atop Mann's playing…but more on that momentarily.
Steve favors standards, though he writes his own material, all executed in informally folky fashion with detuned vocals, patter, capricious runs, and surprising chords. He makes music in the same way the common folk always have but often not with the acumen and quirkiness shown here. There's a lot of humor in the guy's runs and slantwise attitude, and those traits reveal more than a little of the tragic once you understand what's going on. As Mann was climbing the ladder to a rightful place in the pantheon, mental illness struck and has plagued him to this day, yet he's never given up and plays to this moment with gentle wistfulness, good humor, and a scattered outside perspective.
However, the immortal Janis Joplin thought highly of the guy and recorded three songs on a home recorder back in the day. Normally, such impromptu long-lost affairs are questionable, but each cut here is stupendous, worthy of Smithsonian enshrinement, tracks that should've gone into both her box sets. They're that damn good and already registered with the Library of Congress, so there's a start at least. The sonic quality suffers a tad, but Joplin's vocals are breathtaking, with Mann's accompaniments authentic as hell. I was amazed at the timeless relevance of the triad of cuts and aver that Janis' many fans MUST pick this CD up merely on weight of their presence, thenceafter to discover Mann, who can't help but appeal to any purist.
On If You Live, a Mose Allison tune, Mann comes across as a dead-on one-man Hot Tuna, but the Tuna that first showed up on stage, lo those many years ago, not the later incarnations (which were still good). I caught those guys in their very first appearance in the early 70s. The Moody Blues had been nabbed by narcs and unable to top the bill with the Jefferson Airplane at the Forum, so Jorma and Jack played a righteous set in lieu and were met very well by the audience; thus one can imagine why Mann was, at that period, fared as well he did.
Steve Mann deserves the anthologization he receives here merely on merit of his jaw-dropping guitar work, but the cross-blend of folk with blues offered is equally fascinating. Fans of Doc Watson, David Bromberg (man, is that guy's work overlooked!), 70s folk, Kottke, southern and bayou blues will not be disappointed in the least.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2007, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.
Website design by David N. Pyles