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No Break From the Blues

At 63, John Mayall Is Still Exploring the Form, and With All the Skill and Energy of His Glory Days

June 28, 1997|BUDDY SEIGAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's mind-boggling to consider the career of John Mayall, who plays Sunday at the Coach House. At 63, he's been a musician for nearly half a century and has released more than 40 albums.

Can it really be that long ago that Mayall was among the world's premier blues hippies, "chicka-chicka"-ing his signature "Room to Move" over the FM airwaves and seeming to single-handedly introduce every British blues guitar hero from Eric Clapton on down during the '60s and '70s?

It's equally impressive when you hear the first few notes of Mayall's latest CD, "Blues for the Lost Days." The sonic crunch and energy level of the opening "Dead City" are every bit as potent as anything from his landmark "Bluesbreakers" album from 1966, and "Lost Days" sustains its excellence from start to finish. He may be one grizzled old geezer, but Mayall delivers his blues with all the punch and enthusiasm of his glory days.

As a vocalist, harp player and pianist, Mayall has been a jack of all trades and master of none. The years have not been kind to his voice--a high, airy instrument that some found grating even at the peak of its power.

But Mayall's strength has never been his technique as a singer or musician. Rather, what Mayall does is turn the blues inside out; he experiments with the form and explodes cliches, expands and blurs its parameters and makes this quintessentially black, southern American music his own. When one thinks of British blues, it is inevitably Mayall's goateed face that first comes to mind, for he is the father and spiritual figurehead of a legitimate blues form.

"I guess we didn't realize it at the time," said Mayall in a recent phone interview. "Of course, we were all just scuffling around and didn't really know what we were doing. We just loved the music and we had that fervor that's needed to make it believable. There was so much going on at that particular time that there was a boom of sorts, and it led to the emergence of so many great players that they're too numerous to mention."

Mayall may be too humble to go into detail--or perhaps he's just tired of talking about it--but from his early bands sprung a great many of those players. Guitarists Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor, Peter Green, John Mark and Harvey Mandel; drummers Mick Fleetwood, Aynsley Dunbar and Keef Hartley; bassists Jack Bruce and Larry Taylor; trumpeter Blue Mitchell; violinist Don "Sugarcane" Harris; saxophonist Johnny Almond--they all put in early stints with Mayall's bands.

Political discretion being the better part of valor, Mayall doesn't like to discuss his particular favorites among this impressive litany of sidemen, but he reserves special accolades for one of them, at least.

"I've always been a particular fan of Eric whenever he picks up the guitar," Mayall said. "I'm not really a fan of those soupy ballads he does that make the charts, but once he gets onstage and starts burning, that's it for me."

Mayall's current lineup of the Bluesbreakers--drummer Joe Yuele, bassist John Paulus and guitarist Buddy Whittington--is among the finest of his career, and "Lost Days" is among his most fully realized and satisfying releases. Whittington, in particular, is a real find, his scorching runs eerily recalling Clapton's early work with the group.

"This album is definitely following in the tradition of the early Bluesbreakers," Mayall said. "A lot of that had to do with the rapport we had with [producer] John Porter, who is also an Englishman and producer of many blues records of that period. In fact, he used to work at a club in Newcastle we played at back when Eric was in the band. We go back a long way."

In addition to being a superbly performed electric blues album, "Lost Days" is a wildly eclectic ride lyrically, even by Mayall's standards. Never one to use stale "Woke Up This Morning" maxims or wallow in the whiskey 'n' wimmens school of blues songwriting, here Mayall makes one of the most personal statements he's ever recorded.

The title tune is a bittersweet remembrance of the old London blues scene, while "All Those Heroes" offers a litany of his early inspirations. "Trenches" is a poetic, harrowing account of the front lines of World War I, while in "One in a Million" Mayall offers a tender paean to his mother.

The songs brood and contemplate, rejoice and celebrate in a literate, often heart-wrenching fashion.

"It's just a general belief I've always had that if you're gonna sing something, you should sing something personal," Mayall said. "That's what the main feature of the blues is as far as I'm concerned, the fact that it allows you to tell something that's on your mind. Whenever I write a song, I feel like it should tell a story in the same way that a film would tell a story. It's just a matter of connecting up a musical mood to a piece, and then fine-tuning the lyrics to put it into words."

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