Some musicians seem to step up and it give their all only when surrounded by extraordinary players – others do it every time, night or day. Mr. John Mayall is of the latter example. The senior statesman of British Blues displayed his uncanny knack of putting on a great show anytime or anyplace, as well as bringing the best out of his band members.
There seemed to be certain factors that were working against this show. Sunday night might not be the prime slot for catching a Blues show with Monday following so close behind it. Mr. Mayall’s former bands have included such luminaries as Eric Clapton, Jon Mark, Sonny Landreth, Peter Green, John McVie, and most recently guitarist, and fan favorite Buddy Whittington. Fans get attached to performers, they bond on a certain level not unlike the way they do with athletes. One could hear the not so quiet murmurs in the pre-show crowd, questioning the new band, and at times edging toward a ‘show-me’ attitude concerning Mayall’s latest configuration of players and the past glories of his former bands. Historically, Mr. Mayall has always done this – change, refresh, and recreate. I think that more than a band that Mr. Mayall forms with other musicians, it is a school, the John Mayall Finishing School for Blues Artists. And once again he chose his students wisely, and seems to have taught them well.
Precisely at 8:00 PM, he was introduced to the crowd, as he made his way in black jeans and shirt, onto the stage. With genuine joy in his voice and his eyes (now behind spectacles – like many in the crowd) he said, before bringing out the band, he would give us a little ‘boogie-woogie’, and he did just that, Stationed upright behind his keyboard he proceeded to roll those eighty-eight’s, and set the stage for the remaining band members to join him. I found this an endearing and self-effacing path for a performer of Mr. Mayall’s status, wherein most artists at that level usually open up with the band playing a few numbers and THEN the main attraction comes out to join them – touche’ John. The band came out and began with Otis Rush’s classic ‘All Your Love‘ which Mayall originally released on the famous ‘Beano’ album with Clapton & McVie. Familiar enough but with subtle differences to allow for the guitar work of Rocky Athas to reform the song into his interpretation of this oft’ covered nugget.
Now Mr. Athas has the chore of replacing the aforementioned Mr. Whittington who had been with Mayall for over fifteen years. Rocky’s resume reads as well as anyone’s out there: growing up with Stevie Ray Vaughn and being inducted into Buddy Magazines’ Texas Tornadoes, two years before SRV would get the same prize.
To read more about Mr. Athas go to his web page, http://www.rockyathas.com/index.html
or visit Mr. Mayall’s site http://www.johnmayall.com/index.html.
On with the show – with much the feeling of an old time barn storming, chitlin’ circuit revival, Mr. Mayall and band rocked, boogied, and second lined their way through many classic songs. Not only Mayall classics but those of the original blues men, Sonny Boy Williamson, Albert King, and Freddy King. Mr. Mayall leads the stage with comfortable aplomb, enjoying his role as the heirophant of the Blues. His smile (and those of the band’s) were quite the evidence that this was as good a good time for them as it was for us in the audience. His new band features Greg Rzab on bass and Jay Davenport on drums – these two came from the Windy City and add an urban toughness to the sound and as a rhythm section, they were captivating and provocative. Mr. Rzab was featured in a call and response with Mr. Mayall on their take of the classic Mayall anthem, ‘Room To Move‘ . With fingers flying Mr. Rzab not only pouted, mugged, smiled and cajoled with Mr. Mayall, but matched ‘the teachers’ harp gymnastics note for note on his bass – much to the joy of the crowd who erupted after each give and take.
As for Mr. Mayall, his playing and genuine enthusiasm was contagious. He often accompanied himself on keys while playing harp – and sometimes in conjunction with Rocky’s guitar – and at one point blowing his ‘har-mini-monica’ that he wore as a necklace, doing some serious justice to the little half-octave jewelry piece that we all thought was just for show. His vocals were as good as ever, tinged with the natural onset of roughness and deep blue hues that comes with living life to a fine age, his voice seemed more at ease with the intended sensibilities of the selected numbers. His harp playing was solid and just hard edged enough to generate the feel of a jook-joint bar on a Sunday night.
What was, for me, the moment of realization of how good this band was, occurred when Mr. Mayall announced that they were going to do a number from their new release ‘Tough‘, a song entitled ‘Nothing To Do With Love‘. This new song is much along the lines of your John Mayall penned composition, intelligent social commentary. Not the ‘love’ that we would immediately think of it is more about the actions going on in the world today and that lack of love that is driving the insanity that we see everyday. Those familiar with Mr. Mayall’s song writing will see the connections to his earlier stuff and appreciate, yet another, classic Mayall hit.
With this musical op-ed piece the band seemed to come together as one. It was their song, having put it together in the studio it was a part of each of them and they each put some element of themselves into the song and it was quite a thing to see and hear.
With smile still firmly in place, Mr. Mayall graciously thanked each of his band mates, and hi-fived those in the front row (and beyond) as they left the stage. Their leaving was not for long though, they were summoned back for an encore number. ‘Hideaway‘ was their choice, and once again, it showed that this band’s interpretation of the familiar is a good thing as they surprised us with new twists and orchestral hi-jinks to delight us all.
On this night Mr. Mayall and his new band, did several things. They won over the ‘old fans’ who have held on tightly to their favorite players of the past, showed ‘newbies’ the path of enlightenment that can only be found in the Blues, and proved that the John Mayall Finishing School for Blues Musicians was alive and well – and still doing a great job of it.
To read Blues411′s interview with Sir John, please visit:
To view more photos from the show please visit:
Until next time,
Love, Peace & Chicken Grease,
photos courtesy of Leslie K. Joseph