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Music Review: Gerry Hundt – Since Way Back

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"Mandolin blues? Now I've heard it all!"

That was my initial reaction when I heard about Gerry Hundt's debut solo album for Blue Bella Records, Since Way Back. The thing is, I hadn't heard it all. I had never the blues played on the mandolin. Hundt will be the first to tell you he's not the first guy to try it, but it was new to me and I was impossibly intrigued by the very idea of it all. I don't know the history of mandolin blues, but I know just enough Chicago blues history to tell you the instrument was not a building block of that particular sound.

When Hundt decided to record his first solo album, he didn't have to look far for help. Fellow Flip Tops "Piano" Willie Oshawny, drummer Bob Carter, and frontman Nick Moss all signed on to help. Moss handled bass duties as well as filling in on acoustic guitar. Blue Bella label mates Bill Lupkin (harmonica) and Josh Stimmel (Kilborn Alley Blues Band guitarist) round out the band behind Hundt, who handles vocals and plays electric and and acoustic mandolin. The familiarity and friendships these guys share comes across in the instrumental interplay; an infectious mixture of seriousness and fun.

I was afraid I'd have trouble describing this album because I have no frame of reference for mandolin blues. That task is made much easier because this is mostly a faithful Chicago blues record that just happens to feature a mandolin. The songs, the accompaniments, and attitude reveal that vintage Chicago style. Hundt treats his mandolin as if he's playing lead guitar both in terms of the way he plays and when he plays.

Mixing covers (Otis Spann's "Burning Fire" and Jimmy Rogers' "You're The One") and originals, instrumental and vocal tracks helps pace the album and keep it fresh. Both covers are among the album's best tracks. Oshawny does a fine job following the footsteps of one of the blues' best pianists on "Burning Fire." Hundt's mandolin lead – a phrase I never thought I'd ever use – re-creates a signature Chicago blues guitar lead, the kind Muddy Waters used to lay over Spann's piano work. "Union Meetin,'" the song that strays the furthest from the Chicago sound, is an old-timey, ragtime shuffle that sits nicely with the more hard-boiled tracks.

The juxtaposition of the new (to me) and familiar is a big part of what makes this album click. That, and it's cool to hear the mandolin used in unusual ways and surprising environments. Now if someone could just find a way to look cool playing a mandolin. The size of the instrument and the sound it produces makes it pretty hard to rock, and anyone who tries winds up looking ridiculous. Image issues aside, this is one of the coolest blues releases you're likely to hear this year.

Two songs from Since Way Back were used as music interludes on NPR's Morning Edition. You can hear clips of "Since Way Back" and "That Woman" on NPR's web site.

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About Josh Hathaway

  • I read a little about those guys in the liner notes to the album. I still don’t think mandolin when I think Chicago blues, but I love this record.

  • Charlie Jones

    There is a small but well established mandolin blues tradition dating back to the 1930s that is actually rooted in Chicago Blues.

    Yank Rachell
    Johnny Young

  • If Harry Manx can make a raga fit in the blues, I have no doubt Hundt is doing the same with a mandolin. Yup, I’m interested.

    Can’t wait until someone introduces an electric cello to the music form, that would be especially cool.

  • Congrats! This article has been forwarded to the Advance.net websites and Boston.com.

  • Yes, Pico, we’re calling you out!

    I can’t wait to hear more about what you think, Mark. I think you’ll like the record should you pick it up. I also couldn’t help feeling that Pico would get into this one. It’s just a hunch.

  • ah right!

    oh Piiiicoooooooooo!

  • I keep thinking our friend Pico would like this one. it is grittier than people might expect. I would have thought they might have softened the Chicago blues sound to incorporate mandolin, but they didn’t. They kept that same blueprint and stuck a mandolin on it. It’s going to be one of my favorite records this year just for that.

    Thanks, Mark.

  • at first i wouldn’t have thought that the mandolin made sense in a blues context…but then i thought the same thing about it for jazz until i heard the Garcia/Grisman material (and yeah, yeah…i know about the Jazz Mandolin project).

    this stuff is much grittier than people might expect.