Assembled by southern California blues activist and occasional singer/harmonica player Randy Chortkoff, the Mannish Boys are a “supergroup” that performs revue-style, with different members, most of whom also have solo careers or belong to other bands, stepping in and out of the spotlight. The frontman and nominal leader is vocalist Finis Tasby, who sings like a lighter, smoother B. B. King and is aided by the gritty Mississippi/Chicago singer and harpman Johnny Dyer. Pianist Leon Blue (Ike and Tina Turner Revue, Albert Collins) often shows up, as well as guitarists Kid Ramos (James Harman Band, Fabulous Thunderbirds), Frank “Paris Slim” Goldwasser and Kirk Fletcher. The current rhythm section is Tom Leavey on bass and Richard “Big Foot” Innes on drums.
They have most of the pros and cons of other supergroups, in any genre. These guys are seasoned pros, who can play together tightly on short notice; they confirm that no matter how good individual soloists are, the groove counts for at least as much, if not more, in blues. But no matter how tastefully and impeccably they play, they are classicists to a fault; their idea of a bold move is to give Muddy Waters 'Chicago stomp “I'm Ready” a Slim Harpo-style swamp blues arrangement. And they are so concerned with demonstrating all that impeccable taste that sometimes they simply fail to generate much excitement; it's blues under a glass dome, blues as a museum piece. As skeptics used to say of Motown, “Every bead of sweat is in place.”
Or, at least, that was the case with their first few albums. Big Plans benefits further from both stellar guests and fresher material. Goldwasser's “I Can't Stay Here” could become a blues standard, and he sings and plays slide like a man possessed. Leavey's “Mary Jane” is a fine Chicago-style vehicle for Bobby Jones, who once worked with Dave and Louis Meyers, and who sings like he knows better than anyone that he's been away from the scene for way too long. Tasby brings a two-fisted swagger to his own “Walkin'Down Fillmore,” that's simply not there on most of his efforts. Singer/guitarist Jody Williams turns in a tuneful, swinging remake of his oldie “Groan My Blues Away,” then gets lowdown on “Young & Tender,” which Chortkoff wrote for him. Even better, the remakes are often just as memorable, with Ramos'marauding guitar powering Otis Rush's “My Baby's a Good ‘Un,” and Dyer's vocals on Jimmy Rogers'”Broken Hearted Blues” able to make grown men cry.