Clean-living music-biz veteran John Mayall has still got the blues



By Steve Newton

While prepping for my interview with British blues-rock legend John Mayall I browsed my trusty CD collection and came up with the remastered version of his 1971 album, Back to the Roots. This turned out to be a fine choice from a guitar freak’s standpoint as it boasts performances by such stellar pickers as Harvey Mandel, Mick Taylor, and Eric Clapton—all of whom play lead on the disc’s third track, “Accidental Suicide”.

Mayall wrote that tune shortly after the death of Jimi Hendrix in 1970, intent on delivering a cautionary tale for those pushing the limits of drug and alcohol abuse. As shown by the recent demise of Amy Winehouse, today’s hard-partying rock stars have yet to clue in to such advice some four decades later. But Mayall has always practiced what he preached, steering clear of drugs for all of his half-century in the music business.

“I’m of an age that came up when drugs weren’t really a part of what was going on around us,” explains the Godfather of the Blues from his home in L.A. “For people who were teenagers in the ’60s, of course drugs were everywhere, but by that time I was over 30, so I’d already got my lifestyle totally together, and that was something where drugs never really came into the picture. So there was no need to start!”

Along with a drug-free existence, Mayall says that the fact that he’s been blessed with “a good metabolism” has allowed him to keep living the rock ’n’ roll life at the age of 77. That includes releasing his 57th album, Tough, in 2009, and continuing to tour, whether it means playing big events—like the Burnaby Blues + Roots Festival—or his gig the next night at a club in Victoria. Either size of venue is okay with him.

“It doesn’t really make any difference to me,” he says, “because it’s the atmosphere and the interplay between the musicians and the connection with the audience that counts. So for me it’s all the same—about communication.”

Mayall is connecting with crowds these days via a band that includes Texas guitarist Rocky Athas and the Chicago rhythm section of bassist Greg Rzab and drummer Jay Davenport.

“The main thing about this band is the incredible energy that they bring to it,” he asserts. “I mean the sparks fly immediately as soon as we get together, so the audience obviously has the benefit of all that. The hardest part of course is getting from A to B, especially on this Canadian tour where we have to cover large distances—some by plane, some by helicopter, some by road—and then in and out to America. So it’s gonna be quite a tough one; it’ll put everybody to the test.”

No kidding. Mayall’s current itinerary has him playing the Edmonton Folk Festival one day and the Kitchener Blues Festival the next, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for sightseeing.

“I don’t know how we’re gonna do it,” he says, “but we will.”

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