Keyboard player Barry Goldberg is upbeat as he talks about "Buried Alive in the Blues," the new Chicago Blues Reunion CD, DVD and current tour, which he fondly calls " ''Spinal Tap'' for the geriatric set."
CBR, after all, is a band of merry old blues men – and one woman – most in their 60s, whose paths crossed in Chicago in their youth, and who have been making music with one another in various combinations for more than 40 years.
Joining forces a few years ago to play a blues festival led to an invitation in 2004 to perform and record in sweet home Chicago. That was an offer they couldn''t refuse, and CBR was born. Ecstatic at the resulting music and band chemistry, the members committed to do at least this one tour.
The band is playing Philly''s Theatre of the Living Arts on Thursday, Aug. 4.
When you sound as tight, intense and joyously explosive as Goldberg and company do at their age, you can make with the self-deprecating geriatric jokes. "We''re a little slower getting down the stairs, and on this tour [some of us] have brought along our wives. At this age, we need our comfort," Goldberg cracks again.
But age is relative. Goldberg''s 102-year-old mother, Nettie, attended the live recording sessions at a Windy City club last fall, and according to Goldberg was in better shape than the nurse who accompanied her.
"When I got off-stage, my mother looked at me and said, ''You didn''t miss a note,'' " says Goldberg, who produced the CD and DVD.
In fact, the resulting 14-song "Buried Alive in the Blues," and its accompanying DVD, with live renditions of original tunes and blues classics such as "Born in Chicago" and "Drinking Wine," hit all the right notes.
Interspersed with interviews and fascinating historical footage of the Chicago blues scene and those who gave birth to it, "Buried Alive" snaps and crackles musically and emotionally, and serves as a fascinating social history lesson. An accompanying booklet features rare photos and concert posters, as well as an essay explaining the significance of these musicians.
Goldberg''s thick résumé includes backing Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, when Dylan plugged in and created something new.
But on the tour bus with him is a veritable "Who''s Who" of white musicians and singers, who, as teenagers, were smitten by the blues and made it their life''s work: Guitarist Harvey Mandel, harmonica player Corky Siegel, singer-guitarist Nick Gravenites (who wrote "Born in Chicago") and singer Tracy Nelson.
African-American drummer Sam Lay, who provided the backbeat for Howlin'' Wolf, shares singing duties in CBR, and at 70, is the elder statesman of the group. (Drummer Gary Mallabar, bassist Rick Reed and guitarist Zach Wagner serve as a formidable CBR rhythm section on record and in concert.)
The late guitarist Michael Bloomfield and harmonica player Paul Butterfield are honorary members of the band, their spirits channeled on record and on stage.
Learning From the Greats
As underage, blues-crazed kids, Goldberg and friends often disobeyed their parents, sneaking into black clubs on the south and west sides of Chicago to listen and learn from, and eventually sit-in with, the music''s forefathers: Muddy Waters, Howlin'' Wolf, Little Walter, B.B. King and others.
The DVD offers surprising footage of some of these originators mingling and performing with their white disciples (as well as interviews with legendary guitarists King and Buddy Guy). The members of CBR also provide touching and insightful anecdotes as they reminisce in front of the camera.
One such moment finds Goldberg describing his chance to regularly sit-in for Muddy Waters'' piano player when the keyboardist took a break. One night, after five months of trying to capture the band''s groove, Waters breaks into a big grin signaling to Goldberg that he''d finally nailed it.
Says Goldberg: "Meeting and marrying my wife, my son''s Bar Mitzvah and that night Muddy smiled at me are the three greatest moments in my life – not necessarily in that order.
"We''ve finally become the blues guys now," says Goldberg. "We''re not exactly the masters, but we''re as old as they were. We qualify. We belong here. Like a fine wine, we''ve all aged together in a nice, wonderful manner."
A Goldberg-Mandel tune called "GM Boogie" is proof that you can all dispense with the geriatric jokes. The song is a barnburner where age and time, sadness and regret fall away, and Goldberg and Siegel and Mandel find that magic zone during torrid solo turns, then converge into some kind of sonic euphoria.
"There''s three Jews (jamming) on that," says Goldberg. Actually, four – if you count Michael Bloomfield smiling down from rock ''n'' roll heaven.
But "it''s not about the Jewish thing this time," he continues, referring to his 1969 album, "2 Jews Blues," a collaboration with Bloomfield that also featured Mandel on a pair of songs. Chicago Blues Reunion is a multicultural stew.
"It''s a great American melting pot, and it comes across in the music."
Scott Benarde is author of Stars of David: Rock ''n'' Roll''s Jewish Stories.