Snake Pit is Harvey Mandel's first widely distributed record in two decades. Credit: Courtesy Tompkins Square

When young guitar hotshot Harvey Mandel was hanging out in Canned Heat’s dressing room at San Francisco’s Fillmore West in summer 1969, he had no clue he’d stumbled into an appointment with destiny. Guitarist Henry Vestine had quit the band that night, leaving them in the lurch with a show to play—Windy City shredder Mike Bloomfield filled in for the first Heat set, and fellow Chicagoan Mandel stepped in for the second. Both were offered the job, but Mandel took it—and three gigs later he was playing at a little festival called Woodstock.

You can read about Mandel’s life in my Secret History of Chicago Music strip at the bottom of this post—for now it’ll do to say that his career has been an impressive one. Born in Detroit and raised in Morton Grove, he became known as “the Snake” because of the cracked old leather jacket he wore (and his sinuous, sustain-heavy guitar tone). He’s played with not just with Canned Heat (which he rejoined in 2010) and John Mayall but also done session work for the likes of the Rolling Stones and Love—to say nothing of his many effortlessly funky, jazzy, fuzzed-out solo albums. He hasn’t been much heard from lately, but Mandel delivers a surprise this week: despite serious health problems, he’s releasing his 15th studio album, a tastily fried LP of groove-rock called Snake Pit (Tompkins Square).

Harvey Mandel in 2011Credit: Billy Green

Also pleasantly surprising is the band accompanying Mandel, who’s now based in the Bay Area. Four of its members regularly back Chicago guitarist Ryley Walker—Brian Sulpizio (guitar), Ben Boye (keys), Anton Hatwich (bass), and Ryan Jewell (drums). The stoney vibe of the album cover, by Richmond-based artist Sara Gossett, recalls Mandel’s classic 1968 LP Cristo Redentor (which, by the way, every west-coast record store has about five copies of)—one look and you know this is going to be a Mandel record in his own grand tradition.
Harvey Mandel, “Buckaroo”

Tompkins Square label owner Josh Rosenthal conceived of the new album with this history in mind, in fact. “The [1971 album] Baby Batter is probably the closest to Snake Pit in terms of its conception—it’s just edits of elongated late-night jams,” he says. “I wanted younger, rangier, more spontaneous guys from an experimental and out-jazz background, who could play in virtually any style.”

Jewell uses the word “spontaneous” too when describing the sessions—and he adds the word “loose,” explaining that there were “like 45 seconds of rehearsal.” The first of the band’s two sessions with Mandel was supposed to be dedicated to getting everybody set up and maybe rehearsing a few tunes, but the engineer ended up hitting “record”—as Jewell says, “I didn’t realize we were even recording yet, or that these were going to be takes we used.”

Snake Pit includes a startling new arrangement of “Baby Batter” (the title track of the aforementioned album) that forsakes the original’s minimal, dancey intro for pure guitar blaze from the get-go (though Boye nails the OG organ tone perfectly). Only one other track on the LP is a “remake”; the rest are fresh jams, overdriven yet ass-shaking, from an apparently reinvigorated Mandel. He’s been through a rough bout with nasal cancer, and as Rosenthal explains, “It’s a situation where the cancer is gone, but he’s had many, many surgeries to reconstruct his face—it’s been a huge battle. In fact, I’ve never seen anyone suffer like him. He’s a fighter, but even the toughest person would have a hard time battling like he has.”
Harvey Mandel, “Baby Batter” (Snake Pit version)

During the Snake Pit sessions at Fantasy Studios (where CCR cut all their hits), though, Jewell says Mandel was lively and enthused, “jumping out of his chair when recording a hot solo.” Rosenthal too seems to think he chose a good moment to get this album made. “He is so distinctive on his instrument, but also so tasteful and underrated as a composer/arranger—forget underrated, make that ‘not rated,'” he says. “He never went for the flashy marketing or the star trip, which is probably why he isn’t more famous. He is a pure musician that learned by playing in Chicago with the great bluesmen in the late 60s. I’ve wanted to record him forever, but waited for the right timing with his health.”

True musical heroes are hard to find, and Snake Pit could be the album that finally gets Mandel his due as a top-shelf guitar savior.

This Secret History of Chicago Music strip originally ran in 2009.Credit: From the Reader archives

Snake Pit comes out on Friday, November 18.