Interview

Fire in the Belly: Mayall's Mojo at 82

Photo courtesy of Jeff Fasano

John Mayall is on a roll. The fire that burned in him and made him the central figure of the British Blues movement of the '60s continues to burn brightly. In fact, it fuels his drive to continue to record and tour at the age of 82.

Beginning with 2014’s A Special Life, Mayall turned out three stellar albums in ten months. Two were albums of new material, and one was an archival live release that represents the only known concert recordings of the post-Clapton Bluesbreakers -- Mayall, Peter Green, Mick Fleetwood, and John McVie.

Mayall is on a mission and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon, with two more releases coming in 2016. Considering the reams of print on his early years, it would be a disservice to dwell on the past when it is clear that Mayall doesn’t live there. The proof is in the quality of the new music and the live performances.

A Mayall show these days is not some grand oldies gig, thrown together by an over-the-hill artist simply content to pull a paycheck. Instead, a it's a tour de force of traditional and original blues music. His dedication to craft and consistency serves as an example for any young artists striving to find their way as professional musicians. It is one of the reasons that Mayall will be inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis this May.

Mayall's Autumn 2014 tour brought him to Washington, DC, to perform in front of a sold-out crowd. Sitting quietly at the merchandise table before the show he said, "We're going to really cook tonight." And indeed they did. What followed was a solid, hard-driving two hour set that brought the crowd to their feet and left no doubt that Mayall was far from finished. Retirement is not in his vocabulary, and we are all the better for it.

On the eve of another US tour John Mayall was in the mood to talk.

Joe McSpadden: I couldn’t help but notice that you are credited in the liner notes for the album artwork and the decorations on that guitar, on A Special Life. That hearkens back to the days when you were a graphic artist.

Yeah, it’s something I’ve done. I think most of the albums in my catalog have been designed by me. There were one or two exceptions where the record company might have come up with something, but otherwise, that’s the way it’s always been.

It’s nice to have control over how you are presented. 

I think it’s important that the artwork should always reflect the style and the mood of the music. I think it should all match up.

I think it is something that the download audience is missing out on.

The fact that you can actually touch these things and be able to physically hold the thing you are listening to ... I think it is indicative of that kind of feeling. Now, of course, people are going back to LPs. That’s a step forward, and I don’t think anybody saw that happening.

How did the live 1967 album come about?

Well I had been trying to get a hold of [the tapes] for years, in fact decades. This fan was very young, of course, in 1967. He brought his reel to reel tape recorder into the clubs we played in London and he recorded these epic performances, which were of very good quality considering the situation. We’ve been sort of pals through this. He wanted to make sure that, when he did let go of these tapes, they would get a good audience. It was a long wait and then finally he decided this was the time to let them out. And now volume two is about to be let out. There was enough material, without repetition of songs, for two discs.

I thought the sound quality of the tapes enhanced the experience. It was like watching an old black and white documentary, and the sound quality reflects the era.

Yeah, it definitely captured the atmosphere. I listen to it and it just reminds me totally what it was like in the London clubs at that time. There was such enthusiasm for this new music then. Eric did such a great job of getting rid of some of the extraneous noise that might have been on the tapes. They really are the best they can be.

When the psychedelic sound began to become popular, did it ever feel risky back then, sticking with the blues?

Not really. We had certain clubs that were famous for the types of music that they played. Everybody was open to all sorts of things then. It was the same clubs that were playing really exciting music.

Your show at the Hamilton two years ago was really powerful. And I couldn’t help but notice that you really seemed to enjoy spotlighting your bandmates.

Well it’s a different show every night. We have a catalog of about 30 songs that we rotate each night. It’s a different set list every time, we’ve got so much to choose from.  As musicians, it keeps everything very fresh for us, very alive and spontaneous.

How did you put together this band?

I knew Rocky [Athas] from playing with Buddy Whittington. They’re both from Fort Worth. Rocky came down to sit in one night, and that’s how I met him. Years later, when I’m putting together a band, he was my first choice. Greg Rzab, the bass player, I had worked with him before over the years, back when he was with Buddy Guy. He was a natural to come in on it. And because the rhythm section has to be real tight I asked him to pick out a drummer so that is where we got Jay {Davenport}. They had worked together in Chicago. I didn’t know Jay at all before he joined the band but Greg said he was the one. So there you go, great rhythm section already done.

On the latest album Find a Way to Care, your singing sounds really vital and urgent. You are really wailing on this one.

Thank you. I try. I don’t believe in putting out substandard stuff. I think the whole point of the blues is that it should be powerful. As long as I can make the singing match up, well, that’s the way to go.

You are singing about the blues, but also about loving our fellow man, about peace. Essential 1960s values.

Well, the thing is if you are writing songs about your personal outlook on life, the relationships between a man and a woman, or things going on around you, those are subjects that are available to you as you are going to put a bunch of songs together. I always enjoy writing what I am thinking at any given time.

It is great that you are still writing new material and not just doing cover albums.

On the next album I am writing most of the songs, more than on Find a Way to Care.  It won’t be out until the end of the year.  I enjoy writing because I think a blues singer should be writing about what is going on around him in his own life.

You clearly are not resting on your legacy, you are busy expanding it…  

As much as possible, yeah. I think it helps that we’ve got a proper record company to release the output. The touring goes on. We try to do at least a hundred shows a year.

What is touring like at this time in your life?

Well it’s great. It’s just five guys, the band and the tour manager/driver, in the van. We just get in the van and off we go. It’s like a holiday.

John Mayall kicks off the first leg of his tour in Nashville. For a list of dates, visit JohnMayall.com 

May we all grow old a gracefully and as forcefully as Mr. Mayall...no sense retiring if you love what you do, and you are still great at it...well done Joe...another excellent interview!

Jim,

Thank you. I felt a bit nervous going into this interview. I didn't want to ask the "stupid question," the thing you hope, as an interviewer, that you manage to avoid. I mean, who knows how many interviews he has done in the course of his life? You hope to ask the kind of questions that will lead to an open ended dialogue...

Joe

Good one, Joe. John Mayall was (along with Paul Butterfield) my pathway into the blues, as he was for countless kids in the late 60s. I was about 20 when I first saw him live - not dreaming that he'd still be playing and I'd still be watching more than 40 years later.

 

Good review Jim.  I was fortunate to see the same band tonight in downtown Raleigh.  You can imagine my surprise when I walked into the club and Mayall was sitting by himself at merchandise table, willing to greet all comers and sell his cd's.  Right at the announced time for the show, he closed up shop and headed backstage.  I would have thought that at age 82 he would have left the stage from time to time, letting his band do the work but that was not the case.  John and the band did 80 minutes straight and then closed with a 17 minute version of the jazzy "California", including a nice bass solo and a drum solo.  After leaving the stage for a few minutes they came back and did the Otis Rush classic "All Your Love" for an encore.  The evening closed with the whole band back at merchandise table.  Classy behavior by the legendary Godfather of British Blues and a musician who has played Royal Albert Hall and many other large venues.  You would have thought he was just starting out.

Great to hear. Mayall was always an artist, his own man, an orignal voice, not copying anybody. That may explain his longevity in a transient business. Wail on , John.

I saw Mayall & The Bluesbreakers in San Diego (really Solana Beach & a tip of the hat to the BUT...). Blew my socks off.

And not a thought that either of us would be this old or that friends would be gone...

 

Ave

He was in rare form this past Sunday...in a downright goofy mood! Wonderful show...
http://nodepression.com/live-review/it-was-one-those-nights

Great interview Jim. I'm looking forward to seeing him on the 27th at The Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River, MA. Very cool, intimate venue. http://www.narrowscenter.org/

Chuck

Chuck
I can guarantee you will not be disappointed...the show he put on here and Richmond two nights ago was fantastic
JM3