By Steve Newton
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JUNE 7, 1990
When legendary bluesman John Mayall gets rolling on stage, he cuts right down to the roots of the blues. There’s nothing fancy about his approach to the music; with the help of his Bluesbreakers, he delivers it in all its raw and primitive glory.
There’s not much high-falutin’ about Mayall’s rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, either. Last time he played the Commodore his hard-core followers watched dismayed as he came out after the show—not to chat with fans and sign autographs, but to reel in his cords and dismantle equipment. It seemed odd to see this influential figure of the British blues scene doing the work generally relegated to roadies. But it’s typical of Mayall’s approach to his lifelong craft.
“I always do that,” explains Mayall, on the line from his home in L.A. “Particularly now, as we don’t have any road managers or tour managers or any hangers-on; it’s just the four Bluesbreakers. We all do our own gear, and we travel as a four-piece. It’s the most economical way to do it.
“But we enjoy doing it,” he adds. “And my equipment is so complicated I wouldn’t trust anybody else with it. I built most of it myself, and designed and built my own road cases. Plus carrying those great weights keeps you in shape,” chuckles the 56-year-old rocker.
When the Bluesbreakers hit town next Friday (June 15) for an 86 Street gig, touring in support of the new album A Sense of Place, Mayall will again be hauling the tools of his trade.
“I bring everything on the road. I’ve got a 12-string guitar, and a regular guitar, and a new keyboard that gets the perfect acoustic piano sound I’ve been lacking for a long time. So that’s very important to the presentation of the new stuff, especially on the tunes like “Send Me Down to Vicksburgh” and “Sensitive Kind” and “Congo Square”, which feature piano pretty heavily.”
Mayall’s classy piano work prevails on A Sense of Place, as does the bluesy wail of his harp. But this time he’s concentrating more on other people’s material. For his previous album, 1988’s Chicago Line, Mayall wrote most of the tunes. On the new one he contributed only one track.
“Actually, I submitted about five songs, but we had so much material that we weren’t concerned with who wrote what. We were just going for the most rewarding songs musically. I didn’t even notice that I ended up with only one song.”
Mayall’s decision to go with what sounded best is evident from the classic tunes on A Sense of Place. The record opens with “I Want to Go”, an obscure tune by J.B. Lenoir, the unsung bluesman Mayall immortalized with “The Death of J.B. Lenoir” back on his ’67 Crusade album, and ends with “All My Life”, a Jimmy Lee Robinson song that Mayall first recorded with the late Paul Butterfield in ’66. In between there’s some classy stuff by J.J. Cale (“The Sensitive Kind”) and Don Nix (“Black Cat Moan”). There’s also a semi-autobiographical tune written for Mayall by his wife Maggie, “I Can’t Complain”, which lightens things up lyrically:
“I got me a broke leg acting like a fool/Jumped off my balcony and missed the pool/Now my doctor’s tellin’ me that I’m gaining too much fat/I say hawking Mr. Moon just ain’t where it’s at/Ask me any day, I’ll tell you what I say, I can’t complain.”
“We chose that song because it was bluesy, but it had that humorous, tongue-in-cheek, real-life story that was built ’round some of the things that have happened to me,” says Mayall. “And I think the album needed one like that.”
Maggie Mayall is not only John’s better half but quite the musician herself. She often gets up on stage and jams with the Bluesbreakers when they’re performing in the Los Angeles area.
“She had California’s only all-girl blues band until a couple of years ago,” notes proud hubby John. “Maggie Mayall and the Cadillacs. But that broke up when guitarist Debbie Davies—who is [Bluesbreaker guitarist] Coco Montoya’s live-in girlfriend—went to join Albert Collins. Maggie is now involved in a comedy/rock ’n’ roll group called the Housewives, and they’ve just been signed by Warner Brothers to develop a television series. So things are going well.”
Over the years, as on the historic Bluesbreakers album of ’69 (the one with Eric Clapton reading a Beano comic on the cover), Mayall has helped nurture some of the world’s top rock guitarists. People like Peter Green, Harvey Mandel, Mick Taylor, and Andy Fraser all spent time in the Bluesbreakers clan. These days the band’s six-strings are handled live by Montoya, but another upcoming guitar star also performed throughout the new album. At producer R.S. Field’s suggestion, John Hiatt’s slide wizard Sonny Landreth—who also plays on the new Sue Medley album—was flown in from Louisiana for the sessions.
“I’d heard cuts from some of his obscure albums on blues radio shows here,” says Mayall, “and I always liked him, but I didn’t know a thing about him. He wrote ‘Congo Square’ and ‘Sugar Cane’, and we brought him in to have that acoustic slide guitar on those songs. But once he got here and we started rehearsing, he just naturally joined in on all of it.
“Of course he’s not playing on the live show [Coco Montoya, former Bonnie Raitt bassist Freebo, and longtime drummer Joe Yuele]. It’s been a four-piece since [former co-guitarist] Walter Trout left last May.”
Mayall claims that his current band line-up is the most rewarding version of the Bluesbreakers that he’s played with in his 30-odd years in the music biz. But what if he could pick any of the brilliant players he’s ever performed with and put together a supergroup for one show? Would he have Clapton and Peter Green on guitars, Mick Fleetwood on drums, and Jack Bruce on bass?
“I’d have the very same band I have now,” he maintains. “And then I’d have Eric sitting in.”