Sat, Jan. 14, '06, ...more info
"He challenged me and a generation of young guitarists from L.A. to be more than we were--Ry Cooder, Taj Majal, John Fahey, and dozens of others. Steve Mann changed the way the guitar is played and, for that, we owe him an everlasting debt of gratitude."-Barry Melton of "Country Joe and The Fish"
"After raising the bar for all acoustic guitarists in the late sixties, Steve Mann, following a mental breakdown, disappeared from sight, leaving behind a handful of amazing recordings and a reputation swathed in rumors and legend. Now, nearly forty years later, Steve has re-emerged in Berkeley CA, and fans from all over are seeking out his new recording and his live performances. This is a cause for great celebration!"
-Rolly Brown, Nat'l Fingerpicking Champion
Order Steve's CD, and all things Steve!
For info on Steve Mann's fascinating journey, see http://www.stevemanngtr.com and http://www.wirz.de/music/mann_frm.htm
In January, I made a special trip to California to meet and appear with Steve Mann, one of the great guitarists of our generation.
The show featured Steve Mann and myself as well some of Steve's other musical friends, including Will Scarlett, Dale Miller, Janet Smith, and Jean White. Here's a short report on my trip.
As mentioned above, Steve's playing was already legendary in California in the late '60s, when he had a mental breakdown and disappeared from the public eye. Today, while it is understandable that Steve is considered mentally ill, (he definitely tunes into some Other wavelength part of the time, and is clearly uncapable of holding a job or operating very efficiently in the real world) he is also possessed of many qualities that "sane" people might emulate. He is polite to a fault, and shows genuine interest in other people. He has a good sense of humor, and he doesn't seem to feel much bitterness or do much complaining regarding the fairly squalid circumstances in which some of his time is spent. He is just generally a warmhearted, likeable guy, which is probably why, along with his musical gifts, that he has so many friends.
My initial concern as to whether we'd make any real connection was dispelled almost immediately when I arrived at Janet Smith's apartment.
Steve was immediately friendly and enthusiastic, and almost the first words out of his mouth were "Hey, get your guitar out! Play something for me!"
Within minutes we were playing tunes together, and, while he's not the young lion he once was (you REALLY should go to Steve's website and order "Alive and Pickin'" immediately if you haven't done so yet; it's also available now on iTunes!), there is still a soulfullness to his playing and singing which, at least for me, goes straight to some very compelling place. Steve tires easily, and takes a lot of catnaps during the day (he's on a number of meds, the effects of which aren't totally clear to me). When I visited, he was basically keeping himself going with lots of coffee and cigarettes (always politely heading outdoors for a smoke), and Janet tries to make sure he also gets a regular dose of real food. She's sort of a mother hen to Steve, and is a truly remarkable person in her own right; an Oberlin grad w/ a degree in biology, an excellent fingerstyle guitarist with a couple long ago records to her name, also a good pianist, and just an interesting character. Her true love is Sumerian Lyre music, and she has a website, bellaromamusic.com, devoted to that subject.
Steve also spends time, of necessity, in some daytime SSI approved programs, which try to ensure his drugfreeness (izzat a word?) and are required in various ways in order for him to receive his economic support. This is not usually fun stuff for him, but he seems to endure it with a certain amount of equanimity.
Over the course of the week, sitting in Janet's kitchen and sharing meals with her and Steve had a very warm, family-esque feel to it, and I'll always remember it fondly. Much of the week was spent hassling over getting ready for the gig, which was really like a mini-festival, with six acts sharing a very modest sound system. Trying to fit everyone in fairly was a bit of a task, but somehow we pulled it all together by Saturday night, and the show went quite well, but more about that in a moment.
Here's a foto of Janet Smith, musician, publisher, mother hen, saint, etc. etc.
During the times we weren't doing concert planning, we spent a good deal of time just picking, which, for me, was the reason I went out there. Much of this was recorded using a small mp3 iRiver recorder that I bought for that purpose. There's some very nice stuff, and there's some that's not so great, but there is probably a general tendency of tunes dragging a bit, which would limit its commercial potential. That said, I think it would be possible for Steve to record new material which would still be great, under the right circumstances.
I've readily agreed not to distribute any of this material. Janet may be a mother hen when taking care of Steve, but she's a mother lion when it comes to protecting his intellectual property, and rightly so. We also visited the French Hotel Café, a local hangout for old folkies, and sat and shot the bull with Marc Silber and others.
Above are some fotos Janet took at the French Hotel Café, with Will Scarlett, luthier Howard Klepper, Steve, and me. On the left, Howard, an old friend of Mario Proulx's, is getting his first look at my Proulx guitar.
Another facet of Steve is the fact that he's a tournament quality chess player, so we played a few games of chess (he beat me twice and we drew once). At one point, Steve and Janet ran into a game shop to buy a little magnetic chess board so we could play, and Steve, on his return, having previously conversed with me on our mutual Jewish upbringings, presented me with a little dreydel (a Jewish toy top) which now adorns my desk.
On Friday night, we visited Steve's weekly chess club, where he is a welcome guest, and Janet and I watched as he played a few games.
Now, regarding the concert: It was in a smallish room (held about fifty people) off the side of a pizza place, and we packed the place. There were lots of folks who knew about Steve, and also a few who had come at my invitation, including our friends Larry Goldfield and his fiancee Rachel, who just moved to SF the previous week, and my friend "Peter X", a BMW rider from Philly who happened to be visiting his girlfriend in SF. Also present were an old high school pal, Linda Juratovac, responsible for the concert fotos here, and who I hadn't seen in 40 years, and an old friend and guitar student from my Cape Cod days, Jayme Kelly Curtis, now a singer/songwriter in her own right, who I hadn't seen in 35 years...ain't the internet a wonderful thing?? :^)
(Oh, a sidebar here; on Thursday night, I took a sabbatical from Berkeley and visited Linda, and her husband Michael, in Oakland; we invited Larry and Jayme, and Steve Pottier, an excellent bay area bluegrass guitarist. We had a lovely little jam before I returned the next morning to Berkeley. Steve was a GREAT guy to jam with, and we both had an excellent flatpickin' time, I daresay!)
On stage, Steve Mann seemed pretty comfortable. I opened the show w/ 3 tunes, including the Mose Allison tune "One Of These Days", on which I was joined by former Hot Tuna harpist Will Scarlett. (Will is, along with Janet, largely responsible for having gotten Steve up to Berkeley and back into the real world.)
Next, Steve joined me on stage, and played a moving version of "Ain't No More Cane On The Brazos". Then we played the Miles Davis tune "All Blues", which was fun. Steve still has a healthy store of those patented slippery blues licks that only he can play...we finished up with Stormy Monday.
Steve's voice seems to have dropped about an octave over the years, but his phrasing and emotion are right on, so he sounds different from his earlier recordings, but not necessarily any worse. I love his singing.
Next, Will did 3 tunes with Steve and me backing him up. He's a great harp player, and we did a cajun waltz entitled "La Toussaint" which reminds me a bit of Bill Monroe's Lonesome Moonlight Waltz, and then a couple blues numbers.
Here's Will Scarlett tearing it up on harp.
In the second set, some of the other performers, Dale Miller and Jean White, did some numbers. Dale has been known around the Bay area for his fingerstyle guitar playing since the '70s, when I lived in San Francisco. Jean sang some great old blues tunes,
then Steve came out and did some solo stuff: Bill Broonzy's "Mopper's Blues", a Lightnin' Hopkins-like rendition of "Baby Please Don't Go", and invited me to join him for Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Bad Luck Blues".
In the third set, Janet and Steve opened with a few of Janet's songs (she's one of those people who, amazingly, just constantly writes songs, currently with Steve providing the chord progressions),
followed by Steve and Will playing Steve's classic instrumental "Holly", and then there was the usual finale stuff with everyone getting on stage and doing a number or two together.
In all, a very successful evening...and a very successful trip! I'm probably friends for life with both Janet and Steve. While I didn't directly study Steve's playing, I watched and listened carefully enough to feel a strong influence regarding qualities of Steve's with which I'd like to infuse my own playing. His knowledge of blues is fairly encyclopedic, and his playing and singing speak of severe immersion in the blues, both musically and in terms of his life.
In the end, all I can say is, "Steve Mann! What a guy!!"