Workingman’s Blues: John Mayall
by Bill Murphy on February 17, 2017
One of the more poignant lyrics from John Mayall’s latest album, Talk About That, quite possibly his 41st studio outing (at this stage, he doesn’t keep track), comes from the rabble-rousing title song: “There’s always something gonna set you back, but I’m not gonna live in fear.” As prescient as that may sound in this sweat-soaked aftermath of an election year, he never meant it as a political statement.
“People who come to hear me, they come to hear the blues and rock-and-roll,” Mayall says, taking a break between dates on a U.S. tour that has brought him through a clutch of Midwestern swing states in September and October. “I don’t think politics ever comes into their minds. And the blues are always optimistic, whatever the situation is, so that’s really the message behind that song.”
In interviews, Mayall’s Zen-like demeanor—cordial yet reserved—sometimes gets misinterpreted as brusque. Chalk it up to his British upbringing, or his longtime residency in California (he moved there in 1969), but one thing is certain: He’s perfectly content to let his music do the talking for him. Since 1963, when he founded his now-legendary Bluesbreakers band, he’s been a benevolent fixtu e behind the keyboard, providing the first prominent gigs for some of the U.K.’s most brilliant and incendiary guitarists—Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor among them. In the ensuing decades, he’s also been a lightning rod for keeping the blues alive here in its home country, racking up live dates and key recordings with John Lee Hooker, Albert King, Buddy Guy, Etta James, Albert Collins, Allen Toussaint and many more.
Mayall signed to the Forty Below label in 2013 and, since then, he’s released three studio albums and two live sets—the latter a cache of “lost tapes” documenting the historic 1967 lineup of the Bluesbreakers. An invaluable find for British blues aficionado , the performances are daunting testaments to how locked and loaded the band truly was; in archival press photos that accompanied the 2016 release of Live in 1967 – Volume Two, guitarist Peter Green, bassist John McVie and drummer Mick Fleetwood (all destined to jump ship to form Fleetwod Mac later that year) look as though they’ve just bounded out of a Soho record shop in the heart of Swinging London, ready to electrify the youth explosion.
“Yeah, Mick Fleetwood looks like a little boy!” Mayall quips. “They’d all just gotten over being teenagers but, you know, we worked every night. It was seven days a week— sometimes nine gigs a week if we had all-nighters. We were definitely a club band, and the audience was right there in front of us, all standing there and sweating and drinking. That kind of energy is what we were all about back then in the ‘60s. Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies brought the electric blues into those clubs, and we were there when it took over.”
Talk About That channels a much more refined version of that energy, but still surges with the sheer joy and ace musicianship that drives any Mayall project. Joined by guitarist Rocky Athas, bassist Greg Rzab and drummer Jay Davenport, Mayall taps into the rhythms of New Orleans (“Gimme Some of That Gumbo,” rendered complete with a lively horn section), straight-up Chicago-style shuffles Cards on the Table,” with none other than Joe Walsh on slide guitar) and vintage, uptempo romps (“Goin’ Away Baby,” with Mayall’s mean harmonica recalling Little Walter’s licks on the original Jimmy Rogers version, circa 1950). And then there’s “The Devil Must Be Laughing”—a slow-cooked scorcher featuring Walsh on lead guitar and Mayall on his signature Hammond organ.
“Having Joe on the album was a big surprise to me,” Mayall reveals. “Apparently, he just contacted the studio and said he was interested in coming down. I didn’t really know much about his playing in the blues category, but I figured he’s a great enough guitar player, so if he wants to do it, he must have some ideas. I mean, every great player has something that sets them apart from other people so, in this case, you just leave them to it. He came in for an hour and did the two tracks, and it was very successful.”
Now a youthful 83, going on 60, Mayall took the bold step of stripping his band down to a trio in August, after severe thunderstorms in Texas forced Athas to miss a festival date. The show had to go on and, in the process, Mayall discovered he had more room to stretch out; Athas understood the attraction and graciously agreed to step aside. Not only does the new format highlight Mayall’s lyrical, economical style on keyboards, guitar and harmonica, but it also places the full weight of the performance firmly on his shoulders—a challenge he welcomes with matter-of-fact enthusiasm.
“When you have only three people, the interplay is much freer, and there’s more to explore,” he reveals, “but I’m just doing exactly what I usually do. I never really learned to play keyboards in the proper way, so I keep it very simple. Of course, I try to get very spontaneous performances, reacting to the rhythm section. I don’t know how to explain it any other way. I just attack it with feeling and do the best I can.”