Way back in 1972 , my eldest sister Fran turned me on to Harvey Mandel’s The Snake. I immediately purchased it with my paper route money, so the album has always been around and close to my heart.
Guitarist/composer Mandel was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1945, and has been an active and creative musician throughout his long, distinguished career—collaborating with the likes of Canned Heat, the Rolling Stones, Don ”Sugarcane” Harris, Charlie Musselwhite, John Mayall, Henry Kaiser, and Steve Kimock. The instrumental LP, The Snake, was released in 1972 on the Janus Label and was co-produced by Mandel and Canned Heat’s Skip Taylor. They did a great job balancing a multitude of instruments into a distilled audio picture, and, considering this record was released in 1972, Mandel attains many otherworldly, incredibly compressed guitar sounds in conjunction with low-down blues tones that still sound early-morning fresh to my ears.
However, not all of the compositions are standard blues fare. Songs like “Pegasus” and “Divining Rod” have great cinematic changes that Mandel rips over melodically. “Bite the Electric Eel” is a great fusion of tribal rhythms with Mandel playing compression-laden, Hendrix-like tones that sound simultaneously controlled and unhinged. Also, it’s extraordinary how much of his playing sounds “backwards.” Great stuff.
What I learned from this record is that guitar instrumentals can be melodic and innovative, and yet keep an eye on the audience. There’s no need to alienate the listener—or the integrity of the song—with self-centered pyrotechnics. Mandel and company combine great chops while grooving hypnotically hard. The Snake has fine playing by a large cast of fine musicians, including Pure Food and Drug Act alumni—Adolfo de la Parra, Randy Resnick , Victor Conte, Paul Lagos, and Don “Sugarcane” Harris—as well as Chuck Domanico, Freddie Roulette, and the great Earl Palmer.
I’ve been listening to this underrated guitar record—which I feel wasn’t reviewed fairly back in the day—for 40 years. It’s in my DNA, and it remains in my Top 10 instrumental records—right up there with Buddy Emmons’ “Black Album,” Jeff Beck’s Blow by Blow, and Jimmy Bryant’s Country Cabin Jazz. Not every track on The Snake hits it out of the park, but when this great group connects, it’s a grand slam.