[Today: Not quite great, but good enough…]
Harvey Mandel had the distinct misfortune to ply his trade at the same time as some of the most legendary guitarists to ever take up the instrument. The decade from the mid-60s to the mid-70s was littered with groundbreaking guitar slingers like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, Jeff Beck, Mike Bloomfield, Peter Green and more — enough greats to overshadow very good guitarists like Mandel and Robin Trower, and reduce them to mere footnotes of the era.
Mandel played on Charlie Musselwhite’s 1966 debut, before going on to create a handful of solo albums. In 1969, he was recruited by Canned Heat to replace Henry Vestine, and Mandel’s third gig with the group took place at Woodstock. He stuck with them for just over a year, appearing on three Canned Heat albums before moving on to a short stint in John Mayal’s Bluesbreakers. From there he returned to solo work, creating some of the best albums of his career with his 1971 release Baby Batter and 1972’s The Snake.
These albums feature mostly instrumental tracks, with the occasional guest vocalist. Of the nine songs on The Snake, there is just one vocal track (‘Uno Ino’), and it comes off like a lite version of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. But most of this album is driving blues-rock that finds its groove and doesn’t stray. If Mandel’s music wasn’t as groundbreaking as the artists mentioned above, it’s certainly solid stuff that has aged well. It was on this album that he introduced the double-hand fret tapping that would be borrowed by Eddie Van Halen and others.
But Mandel is probably best known for auditioning for the rhythm guitarist slot with The Rolling Stones after Mick Taylor left the band in 1974. Because the Stones were stretched so thin creatively at that point, they used some of their audition tapes for their next album, and even though Ron Wood got the job, Mandel ended up on the tracks ‘Memory Motel’ and ‘Hot Stuff’ on Black & Blue. It’s a pretty weak legacy for a guitarist who rocked Woodstock, pioneered a new way to play the instrument, and released a string of solid, if unspectacular solo albums. He deserves to be better remembered.
“I always had my own sound in my head,” Mandel explains on his website. “I mean, I heard the guitar the way you hear it today, and even the sound when Hendrix first came out, long before I could ever even dream of playing that stuff. I knew where guitar was going 20 years before it got there.” The Snake contains a couple of glimpses of the future, but it’s an album that’s hidden in the shadows of the past…
Listen: Peruvian Flake
Listen: The Snake