"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.