Though not as widely known perhaps as such contemporaries as Shemekia Copeland, Marcia Ball, Deanna Bogart, and Janiva Magness, Wisconsin-born singer and guitarist Liz Mandeville is really starting to make a name for herself among today’s top ladies of the blues. Fresh off her delightfully entertaining excursion to the Mississippi blues mecca of Clarksdale, Mandeville returns to her adopted home for the past three and a half decades with her latest release Heart ‘O’ Chicago (Blue Kitty Music).
Like Clarksdale, which featured appearances from late Muddy Waters band member Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, fellow Chicago guitarist Nick Moss, and former Howlin’ Wolf horn man Eddie Shaw, Heart ‘O’ Chicago also includes its share of familiar and respected guests, including a return appearance from Shaw, the masterful Billy Branch on harmonica, and a couple of soulful duets with Charlie Love on vocals. All of this only serves to further strengthen what is already an impressive offering from Mandeville and her talented band, featuring Joan Gand on keyboards, Darryl Wright on bass, Jeremiah Thomas on drums, and Minoru Maruyama on guitar, along with a nice little horn section.
Together, they work their way through 11 originals, from the swaying soulfulness of the sometimes Etta James-like “Cloud of Love” on which the band comes floating in – with Shaw on saxophone – to the slinky jazz of “These Blues” and funky, Shemekia Copeland-ish “So Called Best Friend” that’s just as gritty musically as its lyrics, including some rather expressive solos from both Branch and Minoura.
With an entertaining, almost live kind of sound, it’s easy to close your eyes and imagine yourself in the audience as Mandeville and her band belt out these same songs from the stage, making this one of those CDs you could easily find yourself seduced into listening all night long.
In addition to Mandeville’s great smoky deep voice and the swinging nature of much of the set, she’s no slouch in the songwriting department either, presenting lyrics that are easy enough for most blues listeners to relate, from modern twists on common relationship themes such as breaking up (the creeping “Quit Me on a Voice Mail”, again featuring Shaw on sax) and the anticipation of a lover’s return (a breezy “Tic Tok” that has Mandeville really digging in on vocals with lines like “I love them emails, I love that Skype, but I want my baby here with me tonight”, with some added flair from the horns and Gand on B-3 organ), to the somewhat more timeless paradox of “smart women making foolish man choices” (“Smart Women Foolish Choices”), and such subjects as original sin, women’s suffrage, and gender wage disparity in the funky, simmering “Why Would a Woman Sing the Blues”, featuring some stinging guitar from Mandeville.
“Party at the End of Time” is another swinging number featuring Branch on harmonica, followed by a lively “Silver Lining (Shirley’s Blues)” that offers a former smoker’s perspective on the “every cloud has a silver lining” idiom, with the album closing on the catchy grooves of “(Life is Like a) Wave” featuring the rich, James Cotton-like harmonica stylings of Dizzy Bolinski (making, believe it or not, his debut recording appearance) to match Mandeville’s smoky tones both on vocals and guitar.
Whether coming at us from Clarksdale, Chicago, or someplace in between, it’s only a matter of time before such fine CDs as these help put Mandeville on the national blues map. Do yourself a favor and catch her when you can, starting with – if you haven’t already – picking up a copy of Heart ‘O’ Chicago.