Forty Below Records
11 tracks / 44:17
It seems like John Mayall needs no introduction, but there may be a few folks out there that have never heard of the Godfather of British Blues. Maybe they do not know that over the past 50 years he has led the ever-changing members of The Bluesbreakers, which has included other legends such as Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Peter Green, John McVie and Mick Taylor. Or that in the late 1960s he moved to Los Angeles and never missed a beat as he continued to spread his blue and rock, but this time with a progressive path that took his blues and rock to another level.
John’s work has resulted in over 50 albums to date, and he has played with every blues artist of note while touring nearly endlessly. It appeared that Mayall was hanging up his hat in 2008 when he announced that The Bluebreakers were calling it quits, but that was not the case. Luckily for us he could not sit still and in 2009 he put together a righteous band that in just a few short days cut Tough, a terrific album that spawned a new series of tours.
Mayall’s latest effort, A Special Life, picks up where his last album left off and it is hard to believe that there has been a 5 year dry spell since he last cut a new record. It is a blessing that many of the same personnel have returned, as they are as tight of a crew that a frontman could hope for. This leaner band is made up of Rocky Athas from Texas on guitar and Chicagoans Greg Rzab on bass and Jay Davenport behind the drum kit. John was the producer for this project, as well as taking on the vocals, piano, organ, harmonica, and clavinet. As before, the album only took a few days to record, and it impossible to tell as it is a nicely-produced disc that benefited from the toils of co-producer, engineer and mixer, Eric Corne.
The first track features special guest C.J. Chenier on accordion and vocals, and this is particularly apt as “Why Did You Go Last Night” was originally written and recorded by C.J.’s father, Clifton Chenier, the Zydeco legend. Mayall used to do this song back when Jack Bruce was in The Bluesbreakers, and it is definitely more blues than Cajun as Chenier belts out his vocals over John’s honkytonk piano stylings.
This is followed up by the straightforward blues rocker, “Speak of the Devil,” which was penned by former Mayall guitarist Sonny Landreth. This version is a bit faster than the original, and we get to hear that John still has a powerful voice as he holds his own again the blazing guitar of Rocky Athas. Davenport and Rzab nail a tight beat under their leader’s Hammond organ chords, and this song turns out as slick as can be. These guys having been touring together for the past few years, so it should be no surprise that they are still in sync. After this, John lets his harmonica fly as he honks out Jimmy Rogers’ classic, “That’s All Right.”
It is true that Mayall has nurtured generations of fine guitarists, but we have to remember that he is no slouch behind the fretboard either. John takes the lead guitar parts on Albert Kings’ “Floodin’ in California” and on the title track and he plays with poignancy and an artist’s touch. Any blues band out there would be happy to have him sit in on guitar!
John Mayall wrote four of the songs on A Special Life including a re-do of “Heartache” which originally appeared on his 1965 debut album. But his newer songs are stronger yet as he looks into things that are more current to him. The subjects include our terrible political climate in “World Gone Crazy” and the blessings and curses of his career in “A Special Life”. Of course he would not be the Godfather if he did not crank out a broken-hearted blues song, and “Just a Memory” fits this role perfectly, albeit with jazz-influenced piano. This slow-rolling song is powerful, and turns out to be a fitting way to end the album.
A Special Life shows that John Mayall is still able to bring out the best in a talented band, and that he has not been resting on his laurels. It is a well-crafted and personal effort and we can only hope that it will not be another five years before he hits the studio again. In the meantime, check John’s website for details of his North American and European 80th birthday celebration tour, which will certainly be worth your time!