Passed away on September 2, 2009, Steve Mann's life composed one of the true tragedies unnoted in rock & roll and folk. A phenomenon who attracted such people as Janis Joplin (who can be heard in Alive and Pickin' [here] for three very noteworthy and historically valuable cuts), he had both a fidelitous and eccentric way about him and with his handling of the blues and folk. By that, he came to the attention of such luminaries as Sonny Bono, Hoyt Axton, and Frank Zappa. A 1967 mental breakdown, however, cut short that burgeoning brilliance, seeing silence for the next 35 years as he never fully recovered.
The surprise release of Alive therefore reprised a very needed glance backwards followed by the re-issue of Live at the Ash Grove, a much sought after and expensive LP on the collector's market. Now, his only studio slab, Straight Life, is likewise being brought back to light straight from the master tapes with two bonus tracks and an extensive booklet of commentary from and about everyone in any way connected with the music, including Taj Mahal, a member of Mann's backing band, playing harp and banjo.
Straight Life illustrates the guitarist's unorthodox style no sooner than Cocaine and it's first solo, a strangely slurred aside infectiously rendered, Mahal's harmonica siren-wail lazing beside it. Most of the CD's cuts are standards strongly emphasizing the folkier side of the blues, and Mann refrains from too much of his idiosyncratic wont, concentrating on staples and interpretational nuance well dressed in fine fingerpicking on six and twelve strings. More than once, I was reminded of the guitar work of Joanne Kelley, a contemporary of Mann's back in the day, and someone just as neglected in the music world.
Many favor the take on Mose Allison's If You Live, but I side with Mann's own Elephant Song, a Bonzo Dog-ish satire archetypical of the era's hippie-esque ways, here with a Flanders & Swann tang thrown in. Nor should we fail to note that bassist Dick Rosmini was also the LP's producer and the guy who sparked the home studio renaissance while with Tascam, developing the PortaStudio.
It wasn't by accident that significant figures collected around Steve Mann, and the trio of CDs issued by the Bella Roma label, topped off by Straight Life, only make the loss of this underlauded gentleman all the more keenly felt even as they impress and dazzle.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2009, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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