John Mayall

Island Records/842 795.I

We owe a lot to John Mayall. His Bluesbreakers, the prototypical 60s British blues band, helped open the eyes and ears of an entire generation of white, middle-class American rock-and-roll lovers to the origins of their music. These days we tend to disparage a lot of what Mayall and his contemporaries did as second-generation inauthenticity, but we forget how many of us depended on it to introduce us to worlds we might otherwise have missed. The young Janis Joplin or Johnny Winter in Texas, or Elvin Bishop in Tulsa, could comb the nighttime airwaves for the exotic sounds of blues and R & B. Many others, living far from a great metropolis and the rural southern areas where the blues were still played in clubs and over black radio stations, had virtually no other access to this music.

Mayall succeeded artistically and commercially by remaining as true as possible to the music he loved. His voice at its best could sear you with an agonized high-tenor fire that sometimes approached the intensity of Otis Rush. He played harp in a refreshingly low-key manner, always referring respectfully to the masters–the two Sonny Boy Williamsons, Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, and occasionally Slim Harpo or Sonny Terry. And he generally managed to avoid histrionics. Yet there was enough rock-and-roll exuberance in the Bluesbreakers’ sound to catch the ear of young, musically untutored listeners. Once hooked, they could begin to appreciate the music’s subtlety.

Ironically, Mayall makes the blues sound so good to mainstream listeners that he often works himself out of an audience. He inspires his fans to go back and learn about the artists whose songs and styles he covers, and many times the fans find that these original artists give them even more pleasure.

To get around this dilemma, Mayall has apparently decided to return to his roots and attract a new generation of admirers. His brief and uncomfortable forays into more-commercial pop styles in the mid-70s brought him neither artistic nor financial success; in 1982 he brought John McVie and Mick Taylor back and reformed the Bluesbreakers. Since then he’s released some solid albums–Power of the Blues, Chicago Line–and seems determined to make or break his legacy by remaining as true to the blues as possible.

This LP is a testament to that dedication, but it also shows Mayall spinning off in some intriguing new directions. It’s at its best when it’s least forced. J.B. Lenoir’s “I Want to Go,” despite an attractive acoustic slide guitar solo by Sonny Landreth, is marred by a ponderous blues-rock finale that destroys the delicate country wistfulness of the first part of the song. “Congo Square,” an ambitious attempt to conjure up a portrait of the fabled New Orleans grounds where slaves danced and held voodoo rituals and where the sense of place is still nearly overpowering, tries too hard to be evocative and ends up sounding gimmicky. It’s also marred by lyrical sloppiness–New Orleans voodoo practitioners talk of “gris-gris,” not “mojo.”

Yet Mayall’s fusion of bluesy energy with the rowdy adventurousness of rock makes “Jacksboro Highway” a delight. It’s a Kerouacian evocation of the wild mystery of a night spent in a tawdry Texas red-light district–the music grinds slowly along in a nasty, undulating minor key, lifted by Mayall’s broad-toned harp solo and an ironically tinkling piano that seems sometimes to echo Dr. John’s gris-gris anthem “I Walk on Gilded Splinters.”

Mayall is also still capable of a more basic approach. He’s resurrected Canned Heat’s old theme “Let’s Work Together” in a way that manages to be true to the original while making its blues roots even more obvious. He sings it in a nasal Slim Harpo drawl, and Landreth’s slide guitar twists and wriggles above Mayall’s piano accompaniment, which sounds heavily influenced by New Orleans’s James Booker. Mayall’s harmonica also warbles in a somewhat oversophisticated approximation of Harpo’s Louisiana backwoods sparseness.

Though probably best known as a harmonica player, Mayall is also an accomplished blues pianist. In fact, some of his most eloquent tributes to blues tradition have been acoustic piano outings. He includes one here, a nod to Cripple Clarence Lofton entitled “Send Me Down to Vicksburg.” He’s got Lofton’s pumping boogie-woogie style and eccentric right-hand rhythms down perfectly, and he even refers to the master in the lyrics.

This tune fades out all too soon, making way for another stylistic tribute, this time to Jimmy Reed. “Without Her” is a lazy boogie with Mayall affecting Reed’s trademark piercing harp wails and slurred vocals. Though Mayall attains a harmonic complexity that Reed seldom did, and the lyrics verge on the precious, there’s a whiff of authentic desperation about this song. It’s been said that Mayall used to psyche himself into a state of depression in order to attain the proper mental framework for cutting a blues record. I don’t know if he still does, but there’s a bluesy fusion of good-time romp and bleak undercurrent to “Without Her” that’s very convincing.

Less so is “I Can’t Complain,” written for Mayall by his wife Maggie. It starts out well: another Jimmy Reed harp riff kicks things off and Coco Montoya’s guitar comes in with a lick reminiscent of Johnny Young’s work with Big Walter Horton. It’s a relief to hear a guitarist who knows how to accompany a harmonica player with the right combination of drive and restraint. But when the full power of the band is felt, the beat gets leaden and rocked out. Also the attempts at tongue-in-cheek blues humor sound forced: “Jumped off the balcony and missed the pool. . . . Never got invited to the Grammy show . . .” Yeah, right–you’d better not complain. Still, the solos are fine. A fuzzy lead-guitar break starts off with a J.B. Hutto-like triplet riff–though it’s played single string, not with a slide–and then screams up into a well-crafted rock solo. At times Mayall seems to be straining a bit for new things to say; but after 25 years the immediacy that characterized his earlier work is probably hard to maintain.

The Cream-like “Black Cat Moan”–though it incongruously uses American black folk imagery to describe the ennui of a homesick Englishman–is more successful. This is the classic British blues sound, imbued with a driving rock impetus but heartfelt and vastly entertaining. Listening to this, one remembers that Mayall and his contemporaries cut their musical teeth in a rough-and-tumble atmosphere that lent itself easily to blues expression; they fused traditional blues learned from their idols’ records with the raw youthful exuberance of the local scene. Some of that rambunctious yet respectful spirit lives on in “Black Cat Moan.”

Interestingly, the album’s high point isn’t a blues but a J.J. Cale ballad entitled “Sensitive Kind.” A haunting minor-key masterpiece announced by a watery electric-guitar intro and sung by Mayall in a gentle croon tinged with darkness and aching desire, it’s a rare and astonishing testimony to masculine tenderness. There’s an ethereal slide statement from Landreth, and Montoya weighs in with a soaring guitar solo of fluid grace and slow-burning intensity. Cale’s lyrics, admonishing a man to show gentleness and respect to a lady who’s “having a hard time,” are wise without being preachy and sound utterly heartfelt.

It’s that kind of exploration–tasteful and intelligent, laced with deep feeling and unafraid to be adult in its sensibilities–that makes one confident about John Mayall’s future. Listening to this recording, one may question how much he–or anyone–can continue to mine from the rock-blues-fusion style he helped invent in England over a quarter of a century ago. But as long as he’s able to expand his horizons while remaining true to his roots, he can still forge music of depth and vision. It’s good to have him around.