By Douglas Heselgrave
For nearly five decades, John Mayall has occupied a very interesting place in the popular music pantheon. With over 50 studio and live albums to his credit, Mayall has worked tirelessly to spread the gospel of blues music throughout the world, but even though he has had a very respectable career and is held in high esteem by fellow musicians, he’s never really received the widespread attention and credit that he deserves. To many, he is more famous for the musicians he’s mentored than for his own considerable body of work. Over the years, luminaries such as Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor have played lead guitar in Mayall’s band before going on to establish their own careers. Yet, if the soft-spoken British singer and musician thinks he’s gotten a raw deal and history has treated him unkindly, it’s impossible to tell by talking with him. At 78 years of age, Mayall sounded full of life and energy when I contacted him at his home to discuss his career and upcoming tour. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:
DH: People have said that the blues is a style of music that you can age gracefully playing. You’ve had a career that’s spanned almost fifty years. How has your approach to the music you play changed over the decades?
JM: Well, you know, a certain maturity sets in after you’ve been playing the music for so long. You know yourself better and what works, and I think the experience you have with your tools of the trade – which in my case are the keyboards, harmonica and sometimes the guitar – shows over time as you become more assured. You express yourself through the music and the longer you play, the more assured you get and the more refined your expression is.
DH: The last time you played in Vancouver a few years ago, I was struck by how moving it was and how people reacted most strongly to your music when it was just you on stage playing harmonica. You brought down the house playing ‘Parchman Farm’ and ‘Another Man Done Gone.’ How do you account for the power such stripped down performances have on audiences today?
JM: Well, I think it’s the excitement and the freshness of it. It’s mainly improvised. It’s the kind of thing where if I play ‘Parchman Farm’ one night and then I play it again the next night, the versions you’ll hear sound completely different from each other. It’s the immediacy of that contact with an audience that happens when you get up on stage and improvise and - you know - just have a good time while you enclose the audience in that.
DH: Do you also think that you’ve got something else to offer? You know, so many concerts these days are augmented by technology that will even out your pitch and correct any bad notes you might play…
JM: The technology is something that is there and it shows up mostly when you’re recording in the studio. It makes things so much easier with so many different tracks to avail yourself of…
DH: That’s not exactly what I was getting at. Hearing the kind of music you play live in a solo setting would be something completely different for a lot of young people who have only been to concerts that are more like corporate outings or technological exercises. Often the artist is all but obscured….
JM: Well, what I do, it’s very stripped down. I don’t play the harp through an amplifier or anything. It’s just a vocal mike that I use. It’s basically an acoustic harmonica played through the house system. So, you know, we just have very little equipment on stage. We sometimes play on the same bill with other acts that have mountains of equipment – two giant keyboards, speakers all over the place, you know, banks of monitors all over the stage – and we have virtually nothing. We have a bass cabinet, a guitar cabinet that’s not even a cabinet – it’s just an amplifier. It’s just very small. We have a monitor for the drums and one for the keyboards. And the monitor for the keyboards is also just a straight simple amp. (laughs) So, we’re pretty minimalistic.
DH: That’s refreshing. I see a lot of concerts and sometimes you have to cut through a lot of hoopla to capture the essence of the music….
JM: (laughs) Yeah, you’ll see an empty stage with us.
DH: You’ve been playing live for more than 40 years now. You write lots of new music, but there are certain songs in your canon that your fans expect to hear. Thinking again of ‘Parchman Farm’ or other songs like, say, ‘Room to Move’, how do you find the emotional heart in songs like this that you’ve played so many times?
JM: Well, you know, we’re like jazz people really. If the song lends itself to improvisation, then it’s different every night and it’s something that allows itself to be explored. So, something like ‘Parchman Farm’, it is always played differently – even though the root of the thing is still there. It has this in common with jazz music. Some songs lend themselves to improvisation, and some don’t. Maybe some of them are more set in their structure. We have loose arrangements. Sometimes when I play ‘Parchman Farm’, I’ll include a bass solo or a drum solo. However I feel that night… I’ll point out to a musician and say ‘you!’ and it’s up to them.
DH: They must like that –
JM: It keeps us on your toes and it’s a way of exploring the music and having fun with it.
DH: So, speaking of ‘the music’, when you were growing up in England, the blues was kind of exotic, a dangerous music. Can you take me back to when you first discovered the blues and what it was like to interact with what must have been a very different form of musical expression.
JM: It’s hard to tell in my case because my father had a good jazz record collection and I was exposed to his 78s, so I grew up listening to it. So, when I was old enough to get a guitar and play the piano at the age of 13 or 14, I just naturally went towards that direction.
DH: So, how did your early audiences respond to what you were doing?
JM: At first, there were no audiences. It was just what I was doing. It was a private thing. It wasn’t until I was 30 that the blues found its footing in England in the early sixties.
DH: And, you responded to that.
JM: I definitely did. This was what I’d been listening to and playing for all of my life. So, it was a perfect time to get started and join in. That’s what happened.
DH: So, when you look back at it all, are there any moments that you’re most proud of?
JM: Well, I’m most proud of the fact that I’ve always indulged myself in picking musicians that I’ve wanted to play with and create music with. It turns out that in the long run, many of them became very well known afterwards. I’ve had these associations that show my taste was quite good at the time (laughs)
DH: You were maybe onto something –
JM: That’s right (big laugh)
DH: Listening back to your music, I remember when I first heard your songs as a teenager I was struck by how you’d integrate social issues into your music. I’m thinking of songs like ‘The Laws must Change’ or ‘Nature’s Disappearing.’ On the new album you disparage about rap music. Can you talk about using the blues as a way of describing societal issues and norms – because that’s far out of the subjective territory that a lot of blues artists venture into.
JM: Well, I think it’s always been the case that blues has been a means of expression for whatever was on that player’s mind. I think it was a small number of blues masters who spoke about things like that. JB Lenoir comes to mind. He wrote songs about Vietnam and various other social things that were going on around him. He was someone who actually affected my thinking that one could actually talk about real things that were going on in the world in addition to songs about love and heartache. It’s something that I’ve developed over the years. If you’re going to sing the blues about something you know, it should be subject matter that you can expound on.
DH: I couldn’t agree more. Over the years, I’ve been struck by how intense your concerts are. Even last year, you played two very long sets. It must take a lot of discipline and endurance to play the way you do. Do you tour much these days? Have you ever considered retiring?
JM: As long as I’m healthy and I’m able to get up on stage and give it my very best, I will keep playing. I don’t know where it’s going to end; nobody does. But, right now, the demand is there and I’m very happy to show up wherever people need me. Right now, the tally for this year is up to 106 shows.
DH: That’s a pretty punishing schedule.
JM: Well, it’s certainly a third of any given year. So, as long as you don’t aim to have no days off when you go out, you get two thirds of the year to be at home and relax. So, a lot of bands waste so much time moving from place to place for a very few gigs. They’re out away from home travelling or just waiting around. We like to hit fast.
DH: You seem to be a very humble person. I remember seeing you play in the eighties and you were the person out there setting up and taking down your own equipment. You never seemed to fall into the rock star groove.
JM: Well, you know, it’s a personal touch, although I don’t do very much of that now. We get that sorted out at our sound checks. We just have a bit of a jam session at a sound check. We enjoy the music so much. This band I’m working with is wonderful.
DH: The same band you had a few years ago – Greg Rzab, Rocky Athas and Jay Davenport?
JM: Yep, it’s the same band. The years are starting to add up now, aren’t they?
DH: I remember really liking the band you had with Coco Montoya in the eighties. Do you ever get a chance to play with any of the many musicians you’ve played with over the years?
JM: Yeah, it happens from time to time. Not too long ago, a club near where I live that has blues acts – Coco Montoya was playing there and I sat in. He’s sounding really great these days. Walter Trout and I get to play together from time to time as well.
DH: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me. I was talking to my dad and I told him I was going to interview you. His only memory of your music is that I played ‘Room to Move’ over and over and over again as I tried to learn it note for note on the harmonica. I’m not sure if he’s forgiven you yet.
JM: (big laugh) Hopefully, we’re doing a good version of it these days. You should bring him out to the show. You could also tell him that there’s a live DVD available on our website that has about a fifteen minute version of ‘Room to Move’ on it which is really special. Ha! Play him that if he can’t come out to the show.
DH: Thanks for taking the time, John. It’s been a real pleasure to talk to you after so many years listening to your music.
JM: The pleasure is mine. OK. Bye Bye. See you at the show.
John Mayall is currently on tour. He will be playing at the Burnaby Roots and Blues concert in Burnaby, BC on August 13th and at Jazz Alley in Seattle August 15-17th
Essential John Mayall albums include- The BluesBreakers with Eric Clapton, The Turning Point, Blues From Laurel Canyon, Jazz Blues Fusion, The Blues Alone, A Sense of Place, The 70th Birthday Concert
This interview also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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