John Mayall is one of the most celebrated talismen in British blues history, but for him, it’s always been about the band.
His reputation was built on being the musical equivalent of a footballing player-manager, displaying his own skills while exhibiting the nous and selflessness to provide a stage for burgeoning talent. So it remains on his latest milestone.
A Special Life is the album with which the astonishingly tireless Mayall marks both his 80th birthday, last November, and a run of 59 gigs in 64 days. But as the new 11-song set begins to distribute its boundless bonhomie and the experience of a lifetime in the blues, Mayall is letting his bandmates shine, just as he does by listing them with him on the attractive cover art that he designed himself.
So it is that guest player CJ Chenier’s accordion, and not Mayall’s guitar, attracts the first spotlight and sprinkles the required pinch of zydeco into a cover of his hallowed father Clifton’s Why Did You Go Last Night. John accompanies his own suitably gruff vocals with some dapper piano runs.
Recorded in a no-nonsense five days in North Hollywood, just before those 80 candles were blown out, the album is a thoroughly appropriate marker. The current quartet features guitarist Rocky Athas, bassist Greg Rzab and drummer Jay Davenport filling the shoes of some famous forebears in the godfather’s line-ups, and they all hit just the right note on a fine addition to Mayall’s formidable legacy. There’s a rockier feel on their cover of Sonny Landreth’s Speak Of The Devil before Mayall takes a harmonica tour of_ That’s All Right_ – not that one, but a James Lane tune. Admirable covers abound, including a take on Albert King’s Floodin’ In California, which is nothing less than one old master paying tribute to another.
Three new compositions work an oft-ploughed furrow, but there can be inspiration in familiarity, especially when the title track takes a gentle leaf through the back pages of a proper blues patron.
Near the end, there’s time for Mayall to revisit his past in a way that’s far more affectionate than self-reverential, as the band delivers a stately update of Heartache, which debuted 49 years ago on the John Mayall Plays John Mayall album. A special life indeed, and one that’s still being enriched.
Via Forty Below