John Mayall – Undercover Agent for the Blues

1. The Happiest Sad Feeling in the World

Thank the gods for music in these times. As a friend said to me at the Kaslo Jazz Etc. festival this year, “The world is a very fucked up place, but what’s going on here – this music – there isn’t a thing you could find wrong with it.” Amen.

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John Mayall, Godfather of British Blues, played a stunning set at The Royal Pub in Nelson, BC. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

And it’s not often you get to say you saw two blues legends in one summer – first Kim Simmonds of Savoy Brown at Nakusp Musicfest and now John Mayall, Godfather of the British Blues. Blues lovers in the West Kootenay were treated to an up-close-and-personal show by the legendary Mayall at The Royal pub in Nelson the evening of August 4. There was so much demand for tickets a second show had to be added, with standing room only.

Although an offer was made to Mayall to book the Capitol Theatre, apparently he preferred the pub setting. It’s an appropriate choice – modern blues was born in bars and the intimacy of such small venues is hard to beat for a musician looking to connect with an audience. And connect he did – from the moment his band hit the stage the energy was cranked to 10. Unlike many in the hard-living world of the blues, Mayall is in great condition for 77. If anything, his voice has benefited by the slightly lower register that comes with age. Many blues and rock icons never make it to that age.

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Guitarist Rocky Athas: nailing the Gibson Les Paul sound.

Mayall frequently played blues harp with one hand and keyboards with the other, with a precision born of 50-plus years in music. Although equally adept on guitar, he left the axe to Rocky Athas, whose earthy yet precise Gibson Les Paul sound was powerfully evocative of Clapton in the ’65-66 line-up of Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. The band launched into the Otis Rush tune All Your Love from this period, laying out a heavy groove with Greg Rzab on bass and Jay Davenport on drums. Athas was a friend of Stevie Ray Vaughan and was named one of the top 10 guitarists in Texas by age 23, later playing for Southern rockers Black Oak Arkansas.

Mick Taylor’s Gibson sound and slide guitar mastery defined the classic Stones period.

For me it was this Gibson guitar sound that epitomized the ‘Golden Age of Rock ’n Roll’ (to quote Mott the Hoople) – roughly between 1967–74. The fat, resonant and often ‘dirty’ tone of a Gibson’s humbucking pickups when pushed into overdrive gives it a tone that grabs you by the guts and won’t let go. People often forget that Clapton during his mid-60s rise to guitar godhood played mostly Gibsons, although these days he plays almost exclusively Fender Stratocasters. The single coil Fender pickups tend to provide a clean, crisp tone with major sustain but to me just don’t quite match the wild and woolly tone of a cranked Les Paul. They are two very different animals. It was Mick Taylor’s use of the Les Paul, with his matchless tone control and ripping slide guitar work,  that defined the classic era of the Stones, from Let it Bleed to It’s Only Rock ’n Roll.

Rzab – who was a member of Buddy Guy’s band – took a bass solo that rippled and slid fluent as a rattlesnake. Drummer Davenport grew up in Urban Blues Central – Chicago’s south side – and has played with blues greats Junior Wells, Pinetop Perkins and many others. No wonder – his powerhouse drumming avoids the ho-hum rhythmic pitfalls of more mediocre blues kit thunkers.

Revealing the musicologist he always was, Mayall also did an old Lionel Hampton song, Ridin’ on the L&N and the perennial Help Me, covered by so many artists as to be virtually a blues anthem. For his own songs Mayall drew from his Blues from Laurel Canyon and The Turning Point albums, his harmonica a tasty reminder of the late great Sonny Terry. Probably the latest entry in his catalogue came from the 1993 album Wake Up Call, with the song I’m A Sucker for Love. Once again Mayall on that album worked with stellar talent – guitarists Coco Montoya, Buddy Guy, Mick Taylor and singer Mavis Staples, among others. To my ears many of Mayall’s original compositions tend to be less memorable than the blues classics, though always expertly and passionately done.

For the first show’s encore Mayall chose to go out steamin’ hot with Freddie King’s powerhouse Hideaway. Possibly the least well-known of the Holy Trinity of Blues Kings – the other two are of course BB and Albert – Mayall has paid tribute to Freddie with an entire album, In the Palace of the King. Though it was hard to hear above the crowd, it sounded like he was promising an entirely different set list for the second show. With 57 albums to choose from over nearly as many years, that’s no surprise.

2. White Boys Lost in the Blues

Mayall from the beginning had an uncanny knack for spotting world class talent. One forgets just how many great artists he’s introduced to the world. His Bluesbreakers band – formed in 1963 – became a kind of Cambridge University of the blues. Once you graduated from the Bluesbreakers, your career was well underway. We can thank him for introducing us to Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor (still the best thing ever to happen to the Stones), Jack Bruce, Peter Green, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood (who went on to form Fleetwood Mac in its glorious blues period), and many, many others less well remembered though no less talented.

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At his best Mayall’s blues harp sound is reminiscent of the late great Brownie McGhee.

It appears that admiration is a two-way street with Mayall. He seems to have made a policy of keeping on good terms with his former bandmates, with whom he has reunited regularly over the years. I am fortunate to possess – thanks to a certain Terry Charters of The Time Warp record store (the best store ever to happen to Nakusp) – Mayall’s 1970 reunion album Back to the Roots. On it he gathers most of the Bluesbreakers alumni from the ’60s, including Clapton, Mick Taylor, Harvey Mandell, Keef Hartley, Sugarcane Harris, Larry Taylor (of Canned Heat fame), Johnny Almond and several others. The mint condition LP comes with a booklet which contains a ‘Mayall family tree’ showing all the players in the Bluesbreakers since its inception in ’63. “The roots and the tree remain stable,” wrote Mayall, “but the branches will always be growing and spreading to produce new offshoots.”

And certainly the seeds had been sown for that healthy tree directly in fertile British soil from the early ’60s. Living blues legends like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and BB King were playing concert halls in England while back home in America they could only play in clubs and bars. Alexis Korner and John Mayall were critical factors in introducing white audiences to the blues and launching a generation of blues and rock players. While the early rock ’n roll of the ’50s contained mostly faint echoes of the blues, the blues boom of the ’60s brought it out front and centre. Suddenly we had Savoy Brown, Fleetwood Mac, Humble Pie, Robin Trower, Rory Gallagher and company in the UK; while in the US there was John Hammond, Paul Butterfield, Canned Heat, Johnny Winter, Al Kooper…

Talk about being born at the exactly the right time for music. To quote Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, “white boys lost in the blues” indeed. Glorious.

John Mayall at The Royal photos by Sean Arthur Joyce.  

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About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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