What can be said about a legend like John Mayall? His history has been exhaustively covered and yet, for me, most articles have been a constant source of annoyance in that nearly all of them have concentrated on his recruiting and then losing stars of the future. Yes, of course, this has been important, and he most certainly helped launch the careers of the likes of Clapton, Peter Green, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood, Andy Fraser and Mick Taylor. What the articles all seem to overlook are Mayall’s own inherent skills. As a composer, keyboard, guitar and harmonica player he is formidable. As John Mayall Breaks the Blues Wide Open With a New Live Album.
Now, after over 60 albums (excluding reissues) across a career spanning more than 50 years, he has released a groundbreaking live album. Three For The Road was recorded in Dresden and Stuttgart, Germany, in March 2017. The unusual aspect is that thanks to the serendipity of serious Texas thunderstorms preventing then guitarist, Rocky Athas from making a festival date and Mayall, Greg Rzab (bass) and Jay Davenport (drums) were compelled to perform as a trio. They decided to keep to this format and have toured a set of John’s blues favourites with a couple of his own compositions blended in. It is this trio which lights up the stage with a collection of nine songs, all of which just ooze class and professionalism.
In this trio format, inevitably the tracks are all keyboard led, but as Mayall is a consummate player backed by a superb bassist and sensitive drummer, it all comes together so well that the lack of guitar doesn’t even register and certainly doesn’t detract from the finished article.
After the cheering dies down we hit track one, a rousing version of Eddie Taylor’s Big Town Playboy. Harmonica playing of the highest order by Mayall is the highlight. He doesn’t overplay; he doesn’t overblow or suck, like many so-called proponents of the gob-iron. He can even accompany himself on the keys as he plays. We are also treated to a flowing piano solo that is just stunning in its simplicity. The Lightnin’ Hopkins song, I Feel So Bad, follows rapidly with a piano introduction and another great solo. Salgado’s The Sum of Something is a perfect choice for this trio format. They make it their own with ascending and descending bass lines warming the entire song, while the drums fill when necessary and don’t overpower until, that is, Davenport is given his own solo, which is a delight. The first Mayall composition, Streamline, is next. Here we get the warm, rolling tones of the organ as it builds through the verses to the best solo on the album. Mayall makes the keys speak without histrionics, just a subtlety of touch that shows the instrument at its best. We actually hear Mayall speak for the first time as he introduces Tears Came Rollin’ Down. Back to the piano for an archetypal blues structure. Yet again, the perfect bass and drums infuse this with so much atmosphere as Mayall puts the emotion of the words into his voice. He does a stand-alone harmonica solo on the classic Ridin’ On the L and N and shows a depth of skill many modern blues harpists should aspire to. Don’t Deny Me is organ led and rolls along in a perfect foot-tapping tempo. Lonely Feelings is the second Mayall composition. This is the first non-standard keyboard approach. The keys have the xylophone/marimba sound which bathes it in a surreal light, while Mayall asks, “Why do we always fight?“ He then puts in another harmonica solo to further illustrate the lonely feelings of the title. It all wraps up beautifully with Congo Square, an 11-minute romp which opens with an Old Grey Whistle Test style harmonica before hitting a rhythm that embodies what Mayall is about. The drumming on this is clever, complex yet straightforward, just as it should be.
Throughout this excellent album, Mayall is blessed with a rhythm section that is in perfect, empathetic step with the songs, with Mayall and with the blues. As he says “The songs come from my extensive library of material composed by some of my favourite blues players. Naturally, my playing is featured quite a lot more than usual in this format, and I hope listeners will enjoy the performances that capture a new chapter in my live shows.” Well, this listener certainly did Mr. Mayall.
NINEdoodle paws out of TEN …
- Big Town Playboy (Eddie Taylor)
- I Feel So Bad (Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins)
- The Sum of Something (Curtis Salgado)
- Streamline (John Mayall)
- Tears Came Rollin’ Down (Henry J. Townsend)
- Ridin’ On the L and N (Lionel Hampton/Dan Burley)
- Don’t Deny Me (Jerry Lynn Williams)
- Lonely Feelings (John Mayall)
- Congo Square (Sonny Landreth/Dave Raonson/Mel Melton)
NOTE: The CD lists 10 tracks, but the first is just the spoken introduction.
Produced by John Mayall and Eric Corne