Sure John Mayall has been dubbed the “Godfather of British Blues,” but that’s too limiting a crown for the venerable statesman of all things blues. True, back in the ’60s, his ever-changing Bluesbreakers included the likes of Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, John McVie, and Jack Bruce. That just scratches the surface of a notable rotating cast of characters. Then, in 1969 Mayall moved to Los Angeles and began working with American musicians to produce a more acoustic jazz/rock fusion using woodwinds and violins. During this era, Mayall continued to sing and play harmonica, guitar and piano while composing a series of socially-conscious songs, often dealing with his views on ecology.
For a time, album sales slumped until his 1990 “comeback,” A Sense of Place. His then-new Bluesbreakers, featuring guitarists Coco Montoya and Sonny Landreth, re-energized Mayall’s studio and live work. Cementing his place in the last decade of the 20th century was 1993’s Grammy-nominated Wake Up Call boasting guest players like Buddy Guy, Mavis Staples, Albert Collins, and Taylor. Again, these releases only scratch the surface of his accomplishments during this period.
In 2013, Mayall turned 80 and showed no signs of slowing down. His 57th album, 2009’s Tough, introduced his newest assembly of Bluesbreakers including Texas guitarist Rocky Athas, along with Chicago’s Greg Rzab on bass and Jay Davenport on drums. This stripped-down four-piece line-up has remained a cohesive touring unit ever since, although Mayall permanently retired the name “Bluesbreakers” with Tough. So it should be no surprise that this road-tested band recorded the new A Special Life in less than a week, an album deservedly getting some early buzz – it comes out May 13.
Beyond the tight musicianship of the band, engineer and co-producer Eric Corne deserves considerable credit for his superlative mixing and giving the songs a polish we don’t often hear on contemporary blues releases. This time around, the only guest on A Special Life is accordionist CJ Chenier. In fact, his are the first notes we hear on the opener, “Why Did You Go Last Night,” a New Orleans honky-tonker written and first recorded by his father, Zydeco master Clifton Chenier. As it happens, Mayall had performed the song when Jack Bruce was in the Bluesbreakers in 1966 to have a song the two could sing together. It was never released on any album.
From that point forward, we hear all the familiar ingredients of the blues menu, from rockabilly to Americana to nods to Elmore James and especially Jimmy Reed. But few recent collections by other artists drawing from the same wells share as much freshness and energy as A Special Life.
Along with the new songs, Mayall chose covers that include the blistering “Speak of the Devil,” a fast-paced number by his old bandmate Landreth. The band breathes new life into Jimmy Rogers’ very rockabilly “That’s All Right,” Albert King’s soulful and still au courant “Floodin’ in California,” and Jimmy McCracklin’s electric howler “I Just Got to Know.” The band gets downright playful with Eddie Taylor’s “Big Town Playboy,” now something of a blues standard.
Strong jazz influences are evident on the gentle “Heartache,” a song that first appeared on Mayall’s debut LP, 1965’s John Mayall Plays John Mayall. The new version has the same arrangement, but is much slicker than the original live recording. Mayall shows he still has a social conscience, most overtly on “World Gone Crazy” with his lyrics musing on political and religious causes of war. Throughout, it’s clear Mayall is sending us personal messages, most obviously on the autobiographical title song. Admittedly, while Mayall sings about the blessings and costs of “A Special Life,” this is the one track where his voice strains and isn’t as confident and comfortable as the other offerings.
Altogether, the collection proves John Mayall was once the “Godfather of British Blues” sure enough, but that was only one chapter in a much longer blues epic. Mayall, over the decades, has continued to show he’s much more than a bandleader with his protégés going off to become stars. He’s a living fusion of jazz, British and American blues, and all the related sub-genres that have been part of his creative output since 1963. While his bands have often been noted for the guitarists in the ensembles, the new album is a reminder Mayall is no slouch on the keyboards. If you don’t know Mayall, A Special Life is the perfect introduction. If you’re already a fan but it’s been awhile, A Special Life is ideal for getting re-acquainted. In fact, a case can be made that his recent work is far more listenable than some of his more famous albums. Some of those influential discs can now sound like dated historical artifacts. But A Special Life is the blues for everyone of every generation.[amazon template=iframe image&chan=default&asin=B00J3H01UA]