The back cover of “My Labors and More” shows a black and white photo of Bill Graham’s old Filmore West auditorium, located on the corner of Market and Van Ness streets in San Francisco. That same building is now a Honda dealership, and the legendary concert promoter Bill Graham left us a long time ago. The photo is a wistful reminder of a bygone era, and in many ways the same can be said for the music on this disc. Nowadays, blues acts tend to fit into neat, easy-to-recognize categories. You’ve got your Chicago revivalists, with their slide guitars, harps and Elmore James covers. And of course there are the guitar slingers, whose endless solos never seem to stray too far from Hendrix/Stevie Ray territory. While there are blues artists out there today that genuinely push the envelope, they often seem to be overshadowed by the acts that deliver more predictable crowd-pleasing music.
Nick Gravenites and his running buddy Mike Bloomfield (the guitarist on this disc) are two sorely overlooked figures in the history of blues and rock and roll. Mike Bloomfield was one of the original sixties “guitar gods”, best remembered for his work with the Butterfield Blues Band and the “Super Session” album he recorded with Al Kooper. He also played lead guitar for Bob Dylan when he first “went electric”; he was onstage at the notorious Newport Folk Festival when Dylan was booed by folk-purists. Bloomfield died in the early eighties, but remains an idol for blues and rock guitarists to this day. Nick Gravenites remains an even more obscure figure than Bloomfield. In the early 60’s Chicago, Nick was part of the small clique of “white blues kids” who pushed racial barriers by hanging out in Chicago’s south side blues joints and jamming with the musicians. He was a close friend of Paul Butterfield, writing the song “Born in Chicago” for the Butterfield Blues band. In the late sixties, Nick and Bloomfield formed the short-lived rock and soul band Electric Flag. After The Flag broke up, Nick and Mike still performed together regularly; Nick’s gruff voice and wry lyrics can be heard on Mike’s “Live at the Old Waldorf.”
“My Labors and More” captures Nick and Mike live at the Filmore West, cranking out a unique blend of rock, blues and soul that you just don’t seem to hear live onstage anymore. Nick’s lyrics are introspective and contain a healthy dose of wry humor; as a songwriter, he’s always known that the blues can be about more than just black cat bones and mojo hands. The man is also one fine vocalist; blues fans who believe that white vocalists can never measure up to their black counterparts may change their minds after listening to this disc. In addition to the fine lyrics and vocals, this disc has more than enough hot soloing to satisfy Bloomfield fans and other electric guitar hounds. The band backing Nick and Mick included a piano, organ and a four piece horn section. A band this size doesn’t need to rely so heavily on the guitar as a rhythm instrument; as a result Bloomfield plays in a flowing, lyrical style that is noticeable free of the power chords and boogie riffs that are so often heard today. While clearly influenced by blues greats like BB and Albert King, Bloomfield’s lyrical style often feels reminiscent of the best jazz horn players. All in all, a recording guaranteed to make you (to borrow a line from Tom Petty) “bust a move and remember how it was back then.”
Note: For some inexplicable reason, this disc includes three previously unreleased studio tracks in addition to the live material. The less said about these tracks, the better. If you’d like to learn more about Nick Gravenites, Mike Bloomfield and the other “white blues” kids of Chicago, check out “If You Love These Blues: an Oral History of Michael Bllomfield.” By Jan Mark Wolkin and Bill Keenon. Nick Gravenites used to write an autobiographical column for Living Blues magazine, these columns can be found archived at www.bluespower.com