John Mayall has reached the status of respected elder, as “Godfather of the British blues”, and as a man with a legacy of developing artists like Eric Clapton and Peter Green. Fortunately for us he hasn’t let all those accomplishments keep him from his greatest achievement, namely his prolific output and consistently high standards.
In the last year we have seen John Fogarty on tour celebrating 1969, the year Creedence Clearwater Revival released three seminal albums. Meanwhile, John Mayall has released three top-notch albums in the last ten months, two excellent new recordings and one stellar lo-fi bootleg, no small feat for a man celebrating his 82nd birthday.
Make no mistake, Mayall could be cruising right now. As the driving force behind the British blues movement Mayall was the nexus point for many a young Brit seeking legitimacy in the language of the Mississippi Delta and the mean streets of Chicago. I have a strong suspicion that his vaults are deep and that he could easily sit back and release one archival record a year and cash the check, if he wanted to. But that’s the thing, he doesn’t want to.
To see him perform in Washington, DC last fall was to see a man on fire for his art, and ecstatic about his new band. On that crisp autumn night Mayall was a generous leader, showcasing the skills of his superb backing unit. It was clear that he was reveling in the musical gifts his latest lineup had to offer, as they cranked out a solid two hour set. Mayall has no plans to burn out or fade away.
The new release, Find a Way to Care, represents a shift of sorts. Where last year’s studio effort A Special Life displayed Mayall at the top of his game, it also was a love letter to his band. On that release Jay Davenport, Greg Rzab, and Rocky Athas provided ample proof that they deserved the same respect as Mayall’s earlier bands, even if they didn’t carry the Bluesbreaker moniker.
On Find a Way to Care Mayall is on the receiving end of some fine paybacks. This time around the students honor their mentor, as Mayall takes the spotlight. Where the last studio album was driven by Rzab and Davenport's churning rhythm section, and burned with the intensity of Athas’ fretwork, this time around Mayall is front and center on a collection of songs that show off his keyboard and harp work.
The whole thing starts off on a delightful downbeat number, “Mother-in-law Blues.” Mayall wails a mournful vocal as he sings about watching his woman leave with her mother. Although Mayall promises he won’t get drunk again, it is clearly too late to save the relationship. The mother-in-law has her daughter in tow, and there is no turning back. The ache in his voice comes across like the howl of a wounded dog, and the listener knows immediately that the situation is terminal.
“Ain’t No Guarantees” is the first of four Mayall originals and testifies to the fleeting nature of temporal love. The song features some beautiful keyboard work from Mayall, the organ witnessing with an almost religious intensity. Sam Hopkins’ “I Feel So Bad,” a popular cover tune, is a romp for Mayall. Where the late Rory Gallagher drove the song on the fretboards of his signature Stratocaster, Mayall teases the tune with his electric piano, giving the song a less urgent but more playful feel. Complemented by a solid three-piece horn section, the song provides a lighter take on the blues.
“Ropes and Chains,” co-written by bassist Rzab and Mayall, is a song about physical desire delineated by the interplay of Mayall’s harp and keyboard. At once urgent and yet simultaneously flirtatious, the song renders the subtle variations of attraction. All of this manages to produce a smile when considering the singer is an octogenarian.
The album closes with another Mayall original, “Crazy Lady.” It should be noted that Mayall’s songwriting is still spry and subtle, impassioned and honest. And therein lies the secret to what he does best. Mayall teaches not only a new generation of musicians, but also his audience at the same time. It is as if he is reciting to the world a singular mantra…keep at it.
In a time when lesser artists take years between releases Mayall’s message is bedrock solid: consistency leads to inspiration, not the other way around. Hard work and consistent effort leads to art that stands the test of time. It is a simple lesson that is no less profound because of its simplicity. And let’s face it, how many artists have stood the test of time as well as John Mayall?