4 min read.Updated: 09 Mar 2019, 11:00 AM IST Written By Sanjoy Narayan
Mayall still tours like he’s half that age and is currently doing a circuit in Europe
Mayall likes to make his albums the old-fashioned way
From among his vast and ever-growing catalogue of releases, my go-to album of British blues pioneer John Mayall is 1969’s Turning Point. Mayall, then 36, was already being acknowledged as the godfather of British blues and a mentor to several blues musicians many of whom would become superstars in the own right. Turning Point, recorded live from two gigs, marked a change in the style of Mayall’s music, which till then featured prominent electric lead guitars, and a rhythm section where drums were always used.
Turning Point has no electric lead guitarist; and no drummer either. Instead, it has low-volume music featuring the harmonica, acoustic guitars, bass, saxophones, flutes, mouth percussion, and the hint of a slide guitar. The effect is minimalistic, but the album sounds incredibly tight, with everyone—Mayall on harmonica and guitars; Steve Thompson on bass; Johnny Almond on sax and flute; and Jon Mark on finger-style guitar—in perfect, heavenly sync.
I have an old vinyl copy of Turning Point, its cover, designed by Mayall, a little ragged now but the record itself scratch-less, and it turns up on my playlist regularly, especially when I’m feeling nostalgic and blue. Mayall’s storied career began in the mid-1950s but it was in 1966, with the release of Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton, that it really took off. Clapton, then barely 21, was part of the band, honing his trademark lead guitar style, and also sang one song on the album. Over the years, many other musicians who would later become superstars of blues rock, cut their teeth as part of Mayall’s constantly evolving ensembles. They included Peter Green and Mick Fleetwood (who would go on to form Fleetwood Mac); Mick Taylor (who would join the Rolling Stones) and Jack Bruce (who, along with Clapton and Ginger Baker would form Cream).
Mayall is now 85. He still tours like he’s half that age and is currently doing a circuit in Europe. Last year, he played in India at the Mahindra Blues Festival in Mumbai. But he fell seriously ill during the year. The indefatigable bluesman recovered and set out to record a new studio album and resume his performances. For the new album, Nobody Told Me, which was released late February, Mayall brought together a bunch of diverse but accomplished musicians: Joe Bonamassa, the guitarist who is now in his 40s but who wowed the blues world when he played with B.B. King when he was 12; Steven Van Zandt, lead guitarist of Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band; the multi-instrumentalist Todd Rundgren; Alex Lifeson, lead guitarist of Rush; Carolyn Wonderland, blues guitarist and singer; and Larry McCray, singer and guitarist.
Mayall likes to make his albums the old-fashioned way. Rarely do songs get recorded in more than two-three takes. He tours in 1960s’ style too, carrying his own equipment with a small team that rarely exceeds five people (his own core band and a roadie who doubles as a driver). All the guest guitarists who played on Nobody Told Me (with the exception of Bonamassa) contributed their solos remotely to the project, with their sections getting mixed in the studio. That doesn’t make any difference to the end product: It is a taut set of 10 songs on which Mayall’s vocals, although a tiny bit craggy with age, sound incredibly rousing, and the music, especially the pristine blues guitar riffs, eminently enjoyable. Bonamassa kicks off on the first track, What Have I Done Wrong, and sets the mood for the rest of the album. Wonderland features on three songs with her distinctive country-inflected Texan blues style of guitar playing. Van Zandt, Lifeson and Rundgren appear on a song each, but Bonamassa and McCray appear on two each. For me, the stand-out track is The Hurt Inside, on which McCray’s sweet and melodious guitar lines beg you to replay the song again and again.
On the new album, Mayall sings and plays mainly the keyboards—piano and organ—and his core band—bassist Greg Rzab (bass); Jay Davenport (drums); and Billy Watts (rhythm guitar)—sounds perfect. When you hear Mayall sing on the album, you realize how much the man loves the blues—on every song, his voice is full of soul and deep emotion—and why the title, godfather of the blues, befits him. Many British bands, notably the Rolling Stones, are credited with giving a new lease of life and popularizing America’s traditional blues during the 1960s and the 1970s, but none perhaps deserves it as much as Mayall does.
After listening to Nobody Told Me a couple of times from start to finish—most Mayall albums are like that; you have to repeat them—I went back and put on Turning Point again. And then, another of my favourites, Empty Rooms, from 1970, on which Mayall retained the line-up of Turning Point and its understated, low-decibel atmosphere. After which, just to mix up a bit, I rewound to 1966, choosing to play Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton. On it, besides a couple of originals, the band plays covers of traditional blues songs such as Robert Johnson’s Ramblin’ On My Mind; Little Walter’s It Ain’t Right; and Ray Charles’ What’d I Say. The cover of the album has the then four-member band sitting on the street: Mayall; John McVie; Hughie Flint; and a boyish Clapton who is seen reading a Beano comic.
It’s a classic album that will probably never grow old. Just like Mayall.