Fifty years after the release of his first album, how marvellous it is that John Mayall is still making records.
In light of his unparalleled contribution to British blues, there’s a temptation to approach Find A Way To Care burdened by reverence, fearful of criticising a pillar of the genre.
But Mayall’s new album doesn’t require handling with kid gloves. Sure, his voice is a little rougher, a little thinner, but then he never had the power of Big Joe Turner or the menacing presence of Howlin’ Wolf. Crucially, Mayall still knows how to sell a song and he’s backed by his regular band – guitarist Rocky Athas, bassist Greg Rzab and drummer Jay Davenport – who understand where to push forwards to fill the gaps and when to sit back. Athas shines as his guitar engages Mayall’s piano in Long Distance Call, but the standout is Greg Rzab, whose funky, soulful bass drives The River’s Invitation and Ain’t No Guarantees.
There are five originals and seven covers. Ever the purist, Mayall credits Long Distance Call to McKinley Morganfield and I Want All My Money Back to Lee Baker Jr, rather than using their better-known stage names. The album was produced by Forty Below Records boss Eric Corne, whose stated intention was to showcase Mayall’s keyboard skills. Mayall interprets Lightnin’ Hopkins’ I Feel So Bad with an R&B vibe, driven by a bright and breezy organ. That same Ray Charles feel permeates the title track, boosted by an excellent horn section, although the piano-led Long Summer Days, another Mayall original, veers perilously close to Spinal Tap’s Sex Farm when he sings about ‘roughing it up in the fields’.
He performs Crazy Lady just with piano and voice, throwing in some Harlem stride-style licks, although Mayall is arguably stronger on the Hammond, where the richness of the organ’s tone beefs up the melody in his lines. He’s never going to out-dazzle Oscar Peterson or boogie harder than Otis Spann but his phrasing is lovely. Alongside the covers, Mayall takes a crack at Matt Schofield’s War We Wage from the 2009 album Heads, Tails & Aces. It’s a modern composition, but the arrangement in the verses here brings to mind The Thrill Is Gone (to be fair, that influence can be heard in Schofield’s original too). Don’t come to this album motivated by nostalgia or respect for Mayall’s legacy. Embrace it because his present is just as compelling as his past.