Known as the "Godfather of the British Blues," John Mayall came to prominence with his early-1960s band the Bluesbreakers, which featured the explosive talents of a young guitarist by the name of Eric Clapton. Over the course of four and a half decades, various Bluesbreakers line-ups have featured talented stringbenders like Peter Green, Walter Trout, and Coco Montoya, among many others. So it caused more than a little dismay when Mayall announced in late 2008 that he would be disbanding his current group of Bluesbreakers, retiring the name for good.
No need to fret, fellow blues-rock aficionados...just because Mayall ditched the Bluesbreakers banner doesn't mean that the 76-year-old music biz survivor has given up on the blues. Nosirree, Mayall is a lifer, and earlier this year he put together a new band of merry musical pranksters around fretburner Rocky Athas, quickly shuffling the new group into the studio for the recording of Tough.
John Mayall's Tough
Mayall's 57th studio album, Tough dives into daring new lyrical territory for the British bluesman, the album exploring the struggles of human relationships, the risks and pitfalls of temptation, and the difficulties that we all face just by living in the modern world. Throughout it all, Mayall's lyrical voice promises hope created by the resiliency and "toughness" of human nature.
Mayall kicks off this conceptual disc with "Nothing To Do With Love," his low-slung vocals sliding across a serpentine blues rhythm. Contrasting the vagaries of life with the pitfalls of romance, the song walks familiar blues turf lyrically, accompanied by a greasy guitar-n-harmonica driven soundtrack. Covering former Bluesbreakers guitarist Walter Trout's "Playing With A Losing Hand," Mayall's subdued vocals and scorching harpwork provide an excellent framework on which Athas can hang his riffs in this tale of a downtrodden, yet lovable loser.
Chicago By Way Of London
Mayall and crew take it uptown with "An Eye For An Eye," a Chicago-by-way-of-London bluesy shuffle with a swinging rhythm and delicious honky-tonkin' pianoplay. Written by Nashville songwriter Gary Nicholson and guitar-for-hire Kenny Greenberg, "How Far Down" is a swamp-blues dirge with a foreboding vibe that almost smothers Athas's wicked solo with a veil of darkness. Mayall's nuanced harp playing here proves him an underrated master of the form as he channels Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson, crying notes pouring like molasses out of his instrument.
Mayall's original "Slow Train To Nowhere" is a slow-paced, semi-biographical blues burner where the British blues legend remembers wilder, tho' not better days of wine and women. With an inspired vocal turn, Mayall sings from the heart as he delivers filigree piano, considered notes complimenting Athas's jazzy guitar solos. Another original, "That Good Old Rockin' Blues," is an up-tempo dissection of what's playing on the radio today. No surprise, but Mayall prefers the old music, an opinion supported by the song's 1970s-styled guitar riffs and spry piano. Tough closes with Curtis Salgado's "The Sum Of Something," the song's message of love's redemptive power in the face of hard times supported by a boogie-woogie soundtrack.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
The Bluesbreakers may be gone, but John Mayall lives on and, as usual, his eye for talent has allowed him to put together another stellar band to perform his hard-rockin' style of blues. Tough is a sold, journeyman collection...nothing earth-shaking, just entertaining music with more than a few thought-provoking lyrics and loose, but accomplished performances all around. At this point in his career, nearly 50 years down the road, Mayall really has nothing left to prove - his legacy is certain - but Tough shows the signs of an artist too far gone in the blues to stop now, one who lives the life he loves. (Eagle Records, released September 15, 2009)