At an age where most musicians sit in the corner dreaming of past glories, Johnn Mayall is still out on stage kicking ass. On his latest release, A Special Life, the 80-year-old bluesman still sounds as formidable as ever. Recorded over a three day period in November in a Hollywood studio, his Forty Below label debut features the same band he used for his '09 studio release, Tough.
When Mayall retired the Bluesbreakers name in '08, many assumed the venerable bluesman would be content to spend the rest of his life sifting through his archives, releasing classic performances from past incarnations of that band. He has done that, on his Private Stash label, and says he has plans to continue culling tracks from a lineup that included Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton in the beginning, then spun through a revolving door for artists that reads like a rocker's who's who. Peter Green, John McVie, and Mick Fleetwood were Bluesbreakers before becoming Fleetwood Mac. Free's Andy Frasier and The Stones Mick Taylor were also onboard, as were Walter Trout and Coco Montoya.
For nearly a decade, Buddy Whittington was the Bluesbreakers' guitarist, replaced in '09 by fellow Texan Rocky Athas, whom he recommended. Bassist Greg Rzab and Jay Davenport on drums fill out the latest Bluesbreakers incarnation.
C.J. Chenier stops by for a guest shot on a couple of tracks, featured most prominently on vocals and accordion on his father's tune “Where Did You go Last Night,” which Mayall says the Bluesbreakers used to perform way back when Jack Bruce was still with the band. As he points out, it's more blues than Zydeco, with Mayall contributing a jellyroll piano solo over the bigfoot stomping beat.
Mayall goes back into Louisiana territory for Sonny Landreth's “Speak Of The Devil.” It's a far cry from Landreth's B. B. King style version, sped up, rocked out hard, and featuring a cauldron of boiling guitar from Athas.
Chenier is onboard once again on vocals for Jimmy McCraklin's “I Just Got To Know.” Mayall has changed this one considerably as well, from McCracklin's late night cabaret feel to a lowdown stomp and moan fest. Chenier and Mayall harmonize like a swampy choir as Athas lays down a muddy slurry underneath.
There are some interesting originals as well. Mayall's “World Gone Crazy” addresses the why-can't-we all-just-get-along-globally theme over a slinky blues track. “A Special Life” examines Mayall's wandering troubadour lifesytle with no regrets. “Freedom is my middle name,” he says. “If I get myself in trouble, I've only got myself to blame.”
The only trouble here is that Mayall has taken so long to put out new material. If he can knock out stuff this good in three days, it'd be nice if he'd let the past rest for another little while and give us more of his presence in real time.