Liz Mandeville – Playing With Fire | Album Review

Liz Mandeville – Playing With Fire

Blue Kitty – 2019

13 tracks; 55 minutes

Chicago’s Liz Mandeville has been making albums since 1996 and collaborated with musicians visiting Chicago on her 2016 release The Stars Motel. In a sense this album is a sequel with Liz working with five different musicians. However, there is another strand to the backstory here as Liz was seriously injured in an auto accident in November 2016 and for a while believed that she would never play or perform again. A slow recovery ensued and her rehabilitation was greatly helped by acupuncture and yoga. The sessions here took place as Liz recovered, the first being in July 2017, the last in August 2019. All the material here has lyrics by Liz with most of the music written by her collaborators.

The first session features Italian guitarist Dario Lombardi (who was also featured on The Stars Motel), a rhythm section of Steve Hart on bass and Andy Sutton on drums and Liz on guitar/vocals. Liz’s sassy vocal style is ever-present and the opening shuffle “Bailing The Titanic” has nice interplay between the two guitarists, the title being a metaphor for trying to salvage a doomed relationship, while “Online Love Affair” has some sharply observed lyrics about modern dating methods in a soulful arrangement. “I dreamed that we were angels flying on our golden wings. Our voices were so beautiful they made you cry each time we’d sing. Too much joy, too much love, we became your prey. So we drew those wings inside, they became our shoulder blades”: these are the opening lines of “Everybody Got Wings”, the sentiments enhanced by Anne Harris’ wonderful, haunting violin, making this an early highlight of the album.

Liz’s sense of humor really shows through on “Comfort Food Blues”, a single track recorded with Minoru Maruyama, the regular guitarist in her band The Blue Points. Minoru is on slide, Andy Sutton is again on drums, Darryl Wright on bass and Liz on guitar/vocals. It’s a fun song about over-eating played over a Muddy Waters style riff.

French guitarist Phillippe Fernandez (aka Big Dez) and harp player Gilles Gabisson were in town in June 2019 and laid down three tracks with André Howard on bass, Steve Bass on drums, Liz handling the vocals. “Keep On Workin’” is a great piece of rock and roll with good harp and guitar accents over a driving rhythm, “I Just Cry” is a slow blues with Gilles’ harp giving the song a real Chicago feel and “How Many Times (Do You Get To Break My Heart)” rolls along with Liz determined not to let an old flame back into her life, backing vocals added by Jeannie Tanner, Charlie Kimble and Johnny Cotton.

Chronologically the session with Boston-based fiddler Ilana Katz Katz was the last (August 2019) but appears next on the album with two amusing songs written by Liz with ‘lyrics tweaking and good vibes’ by Ilana whose fiddle works well on these fun tunes. Steve and André are again the rhythm section and Liz’s husband Carl Uchiyama adds backing vocals to the first track. Of course “He Loves My Biscuits” is not actually about cooking and is simply great fun while Liz has found the solution to all the ills of the world in “Just Give Her Chocolate”.

The session with Dutch resonator player Peter Struijk took place in 2018 but appears as the closing section here. It is more of a stripped-back acoustic affair with Peter on guitar, Steve Bass on drums, Steve Hart on bass, Dizzy Bolinski on harp and Liz again on vocals and guitar. “Poor Robert Johnson” retells the ‘Devil at the crossroads’ saga and works well; “Joliet Town” recounts the story of a lifelong criminal who started young and was sent to prison where they would “make a killer out of me”. “Boss Lady” was apparently the nickname that drummer Twist Turner gave to Liz and she seems to rejoice in the title though the song also tells us about her accident and how she came through that to play again; guest Rockin’ Johnny Burgin plays the solo here. The final track “Hey Babe Ya Wanna Boogie” is credited to John Hammond, with Liz switching to washboard and Steve Hart playing tuba on a short vintage-sounding number that takes us back to the 1920’s, a fun way to end the album.

This CD covers a lot of ground with blues in all styles. The range of players involved guarantees variety and Liz has written some interesting songs here, making it a good listen.

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