Let’s get this straight right off the top. John Mayall has long been a problematic artist for me. Like Long John Baldry, or Ronnie Hawkins, or Alexis Korner, he’s a cornerstone of modern music, and a genius at recognizing talent. Some of my favourite musicians came through Mayall’s bands (and through those of the other gentlemen I mentioned) but the records the leaders produced on their own often left me wanting.
I recall only too well the first time I brought home a John Mayall album. (Remember albums? They’re making a comeback! 12-inch slabs of vinyl packaged in cardboard hard enough to last for a long time, with pictrues big enough to recognize and writing big enough to read! Aah! Those were the days. But I digress…) I brought home an album called Looking Back and it was sort of a best-of collection. I was looking for this godfather of British blues to knock my socks off as had his guitarists Peter Green (Fleetwood Mac) and Eric Clapton (Cream), but it was just okay. The band was fine but it was Mayall’s thin voice that grated on me. I tried him again a bit later, buying Turning Point that same year. Classical-guitar-and-flute blues? Weird. But it fit the sound of Mayall’s voice better. And that’s been my favourite Mayall album for a long time. I raved about the re-issue a while back.
Why all this talk about an old — and quite short — phase of Mayall’s long career? Because these two new releases feature this band in a big way. Mayall on guitar, harp, vocals and mouth percussion; Jon Mark on finger-style guitar; Steve Thompson on bass and Johnny Almond on flute, saxes and mouth percussion. “Mouth percussion”? What’s that? I’ll explain later. What we have here is three CDs full of music from this extraordinary band. The Masters is a double CD of music from the soundtrack of the film The Turning Point and Live at the Marquee 1969 is a single release that includes music from the same film, but from another concert. The film itself is due for release imminently on DVD, and if it appears at the GMR building we’ll be sure to review it. Til then, it’s the music alone. And that’s considerable.
The Masters begins with this Mayall band’s first single, “Don’t Waste My Time.” It was a moderate hit. I know because I bought the single! It lays the groundwork for what follows. Acoustic fingerstyle guitar, Mayall’s reedy voice, some flute and a catchy melody. Not quite blues, but bluesy enough. They’ll play some blues a bit later when they do “Saw Mill Gulch Road,” all bottleneck guitar and 12-bar framework. Maybe Mayall was trying to emulate his hero JB Lenoir with his singing. He includes two takes of his tribute “I’m Gonna Fight for You JB,” the first from Locarno in Hull June 17, 1969, and the next (very next track in fact) from York University a week later. The difference? About 20 seconds, and a different intro! The first disc ends with a long jam on “California,” rambling bass and wandering sax and Mayall’s jazz vocals. I used to love this track from The Turning Point, and live it’s even better.
The second disc is a bit more varied. It leads off with “Parchman Farm” performed by the band previous to the acoustic band. They had Thompson on bass, but Colin Allen on drums and Mick Taylor — would soon migrate to the Rolling Stones to replace Brian Jones — on electric guitar. It would’ve been nice to hear more of this band, but all you get are two minutes of noodling. Not bad, mind, but it ends too soon, and leads in to some of Mayall’s interview with Chris Welch from the film. It’s quiet and requires concentration to hear, but pays dividends if you pay attention. Then Mayall explains the creative process. Next it’s a piece of instrumental creativity from Steve Thompson with Mayall jamming on harp, which you can hear take shape as “Don’t Waste My Time.” Quite fascinating, actually. Even moreso is “Greensleeves Blues” which Mark begins on acoustic and as the band joins in it morphs into “I’m Gonna Fight For You JB.” That’s only half of it, but it’s more of the same, for the music historian only.
Live at the Marquee Club 1969 finds the band two weeks later than the live recordings on The Masters (we’re now up to June 30, in London). The repertoire is similar. “Don’t Waste My Time,” “I’m Gonna Fight For You JB,” two versions of “California” and a couple of other numbers. Still no drummer, but that was the point all along. Just acoustic music, driven along by the interplay of acoustic instruments. You need a beat? That’s where the mouth percussion comes in. Think “chickachickachickapoo” but in a good way. Looks odd spelling it out like that, but it works. The two releases are complementary, and they well complement the original album, too. I’m glad to have them all. John Mayall is 75 years old. His legend is large, his legacy even larger. This is some prime music from a master.