‘A young man ain’t nothin’ in this world these days,’ Mose Allison complained more than half a century ago, not long after launching his career as a blues and jazz pianist. The lyric from his Young Man Blues resonated with the growing youth counterculture, as evidenced by The Who’s choice to rock up the song on their epochal Live At Leeds a decade later. Some 30 albums down the road, Allison’s become something of a songwriting legend, his material covered by rock acts from Van Morrison and Bonnie Raitt to The Clash and Elvis Costello, most of whom seem to be responding more to the razor- sharp irony that coursed through his later oeuvre than the outright pugnacity of Young Man Blues.
It’s not surprising that American Legend: Live In California is being called Allison’s final album; he retired from a lifetime of touring a few years ago, and he’s now well into the latter half of his 80s. Still, if you have to go out, you may as well do it with a bang, and producer Peter Magadini has made sure Allison does just that by presenting highlights from three days at a San Francisco-area nightclub in 2006. This is Allison in one of his trio formats, which always managed to be impeccably professional and tight yet slyly subversive. Bill Douglass, on bass, is subtle and supportive, vividly melodic on Allison’s jaunty I Don’t Want Much and impressionistic on the ominous Numbers On Paper. Magadini takes the drums, shuffling with verve on Percy Mayfield’s Stranger In My Hometown and keeping tricky time on a fast run through the blues classic Baby Please Don’t Go.
Allison’s the star of the show, though, and he breezes through these 19 tunes with the energy and charisma of someone half his age. Shining moments include his high-speed keyboard runs on Middle Class White Boy, his glacial, minor-key arrangement of You Are My Sunshine or his labyrinthine, endlessly creative improv on the untitled closing instrumental. He’s confident on old favourites such as the socially conscious Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy and the swaggering put-down Your Mind Is On Vacation, endearingly deadpan on the sarcastic You Can Count On Me, and uses his low-key, down- home voice to great effect on humorous crowd- pleasers like John D Loudermilk’s You Call It Joggin’ and his own Certified Senior Citizen.
On his 1998 album Gimcracks And Gewgaws, Allison reprised his early standout with a lyrically updated Old Man Blues, his piano playing bold and stately where the original was sprightly. With Live In California, this old man is ending his recording career on a high note, showing that age brings good things, too. An American legend? No doubt.