Back in 1968, I loved Fleetwood Mac, a debut album billed on the cover as Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. I wore out the vinyl grooves for songs like “Shake Your Moneymaker,” “My Heart Beat Like a Hammer,” and “Long Grey Mare.” Then came “Albatross,” “Black Magic Woman,” and “Oh Well” before Green left his band in 1970. The Mac, of course, traveled down many forks in the road after that leaving the blues further and further behind. On his own, Green suffered his bouts with mental illness and drug use that built a legend, if not much recording or performing success.
In 1996, Green returned to his roots by founding his Splinter Group which included noted drummer Cozy Powell, Roger Cotton (piano, Hammond C3, rhythm guitar),Pete Stroud (fretless and fretted bass guitars, double bass), and the man credited with helping rehabilitate the reclusive Green, Nigel Watson (vocals, lead guitar, rhythm guitar). After Powell’s death in 1998, Larry Tolfree took over the drummer’s throne. This was the band that cut a series of blues albums mixing both standards with original material until Green departed in 2004.
One of these, Blues Don’t Change, was first released in the U.K. in 2001, became available as an import in 2006—the same year that a “Best of” compilation was issued—but it wasn’t commercially available in the states until July, 2012. Certainly, there are Green fans who’ve been keeping up with the Splinter Group catalogue and already have their copy, although the albums were primarily sold at live venues and through their website. But for many of us who’ve lost track of Green over the years, the new edition of Blues Don’t Change is a welcome reminder of what Peter Green once was and what he was doing when the new millennium dawned.
I admit, listening to the first half of Blues, I was filled with memories of the original Fleetwood Mac debut. Like the 1968 collection, Blues Don’t Change is stripped-down, straight-up blues with dark, haunting tones. For another matter, Blues Don’t Change opens with “I Believe My Time Ain’t Long,” an Elmore James song that was not only on the 1968 LP, it was Fleetwood Mac’s very first single in 1967. (The liner notes incorrectly credit Mac co-founder Jeremy Spencer with a composition credit. Not so.) Blues Don’t Change is filled with other covers of classics every British blues player must have cut their teeth on—“Take Out Some Insurance,” “Little Red Rooster,” and “Crawlin’ King Snake,” for but a few examples.
The principal difference is Green’s voice. Back in the day, his vocal delivery was rough, stark, and full of youthful exuberance. The original Mac was a band of white British musicians paying homage to Robert Johnson and Chicago blues masters, some of whom they’d get the chance to work with before Green’s breakdown. Thirty-some years later, Green sounds like an elder statesman of blues himself. His voice strains with age. Many of his notes are flat and cracked, but also soulful and seasoned with the conviction of experience. After all, as he tells us in the title track, he’s been singing the blues since 1957.
Of course, the main focus of Blues Don’t Change is the musicianship of the full Splinter Group. Green’s guitar interweavings are understated and short; we don’t get any of his trademark long-note instrumentals. The rest of the guys don’t sound young or exuberant either, especially in the second half of the album performing slow numbers like “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out,” “Help Me Through The Day,” and “Honest I Do,” songs sharing the points of view of gents who’ve seen a bit of the world. They’re practiced players at home strumming the Delta blues, getting smooth with B. B. King stylings, or strutting their basic licks learned from Albert King, Freddie King, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters…you know the drill.
So Blues Don’t Change is something of a blues primer with all the expected riffs, patterns, and in the pocket grooves. It’s not essential listening but is worth the time of anyone who liked the first Fleetwood Mac albums, likes the blues in general, or would like to catch up a bit with a man many consider one of the finest blues guitarists that ever was. There aren’t many demonstrations of six string virtuosity, but rather 11 songs defining what the blues was, is, and will be. It really doesn’t change, you know.