1969 was a time of creative renewal for the highly influential British blues-rocker John Mayall.
Guitarist Eric Clapton had long since graduated from Mayall's Bluesbreakers band. Guitarist Peter Green had gone off to form an obscure little combo initially called Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac, taking with him Bluesbreakers bassist John McVie (the "Mac"). The most recent lead guitarist, Mick Taylor, had just departed for The Rolling Stones.
Mayall responded by going into a mostly acoustic mode, with a new band that emphasized the folk and roots flavors of his original blues-based songs but also indulged an inclination to semi-psychedelic, vaguely jazzy one-chord jamming. As evidenced by the recordings made at the time, the former hold up well as inspired expansions on the blues, while the latter, though they can still evoke an appreciative nod, sound dated.
The sound of the new lineup in performance is documented well, though in lo-fi, on Live at the Marquee and Disc One of The Masters. The quality of these recordings isn't great but they're listenable and certainly better than some of early Mayall bootlegs I've heard.
The discs were originally put out in 1999, but had since gone out of print. The period they document is less well remembered than some of Mayall's other incarnations, but worth knowing, so Eagle Rock Entertainment's new re-release is welcome.
Besides Mayall on harmonica, vocals, and slide guitar (not keyboards in this incarnation), the band included bassist Steve Thompson, Jon Mark on finger-style acoustic guitar, and Johnny Almond on saxes and flutes. (The last two went on to form the jazz-rock group Mark-Almond). The integration of haunting flutes and celebratory sax with sparkling acoustic guitar and Mayall's mournful harmonica led to a sound that was new, not just for Mayall, but for the rapidly evolving blues and rock music worlds on both sides of the Atlantic.
The tracks come from performances that were filmed for John Mayall – The Turning Point by Peter Gibson and Alex Hooper, a pair of filmmakers who had the forethought to document the bandleader's transition from blues-rock to his new, acoustic, somewhat experimental sound. Disc Two of The Masters intercuts rehearsal and song development sessions with excerpts from interviews with Mayall and his present and past bandmates (including Clapton, Green, and McVie). This material, while mumbling, gives a good sense of Mayall the leader, a man who always knew what he wanted from his musicians. It also shows how the band developed some of the songs that are documented in finished form on Disc One and the companion record, Live at the Marquee.
At a time when rock, informed by Chicago blues, was getting louder and louder, John Mayall's mid-1969 project kept the volume low so that the care and feeling that went into crafting his blues could be unmistakably heard. Experimental numbers like "Can't Sleep This Night," jams like "California," and blues like "Thoughts About Roxanne" and "I'm Gonna Fight For You JB" (Mayall's tribute to the outspoken Mississippi bluesman JB Lenoir) jump out of your speakers like live animals, with no pounding drums or screaming guitars needed.
The country-tinged "Don't Waste My Time" opens Disc One of The Masters, sounding fresh and sunny if a little ragged. "Sleeping By Her Side" starts out like any slow blues, but the flute turns it into something more cloudy and ethereal; Mayall's unsteady vocals take away some from the effect, though. "Room to Move" is a fast harmonica jam that shows off his exuberance on the harp, while the blues shuffle "Saw Mill Gulch Road" showcases his slide guitar work, which goes to some otherworldly places.
"Can't Sleep This Night" is a highlight; it starts as an airy finger-style acoustic guitar song, then darkens into a spacy sax-and-slide jam. I like the Masters version better than the one on the Live at the Marquee disc. The same goes for "Don't Waste My Time," where The Masters has a better-mixed version.
Live at the Marquee has the benefit of being taken from one specific date, which gives it a you-are-there feel. It also has couple of songs not found on The Masters, including the moody, jazzy minor-key blues "So Hard to Share." Completists who haven't got these yet will want both releases. For those more casually interested, The Masters sounds rather better and is the better choice.