John Mayall's Faltering Legacy
Vancouver Centre for Performing Arts
November 11, 2009
First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2009, Volume 16, #12
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Fri December 4, 2009, 06:30 AM CST
John Mayallís concert on November 11 at Vancouverís Centre for Performing Arts was an exercise in polar extremes. Depending upon oneís perspective, either it was a celebration of a life in music and a brave refusal to cave to the ravages of time, or it was a sad example of a once considerable talent who didnít know when to quit.
Mayall recently turned 76, and he certainly isnít the only septuagenarian touring the globe this year. Leonard Cohen and Willie Nelson have each undertaken ambitious treks of their own, and Bob Dylan, who will turn 69 next May, has shown few signs of slowing down. So, Mayall is definitely in good company. Nevertheless, while Dylan and Cohen have been able to reinvent themselves, long after the point where anyone expected that they would still be vital, time and musical fashion havenít been nearly as kind to Mayall.
Regardless, it is undeniable that Mayall continues to care deeply about the music he plays, and his concert in Vancouver was anything but a perfunctory time-killer. Indeed, Mayall took an almost curatorial approach to his oeuvre. Initially, he ventured on stage alone. He spoke warmly with the audience before beginning a surprisingly fresh and engaging version of Sonny Boy Williamsonís Another Man Done Gone. The crowd understandably went wild, and without a doubt, it seemed like a promising beginning to a journey through Mayallís considerable songbook.
Unfortunately, everything fell apart once Mayall brought his band on stage for the nightís second number. When the outfit kicked into Otis Rushís All Your Love, the opening track from Mayallís classic 1966 set Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton, it was immediately obvious that his current crew was all muscle and bluster with little substance. The ensemble had none of the melodic sensibility of his collectives from yesteryear. Perhaps, it was simply a poor choice to tackle this tune. In his prime, Mayall could shred and wail his way through the song, yet still find ways of expressing something interesting. It soon became clear, however, that the days when the best and brightest musicians vied for positions in Mayallís group are long gone. This collective of meat-and-potatoes players did nothing whatsoever to solidify his reputation or do justice to his legacy.
It might be unfair to compare Mayallís current work to his cutting-edge innovations of the past. When he was supported by the likes of Eric Clapton, Peter Green, and Mick Taylor, he could be confident that he had players of sufficient caliber to help him communicate the ideas he was exploring. Regrettably, his current touring outfit is a faceless, barely competent entity. It wasnít capable of conveying any of the joy or finesse upon which Mayallís still nimble musical mind needs to feed.
One by one, throughout the concert, Mayall engaged the members of his ensemble. Repeatedly, he would turn and grin approvingly at whoeverís turn it was to jam with him. He gave his band plenty of room, and he encouraged the musicians to find something new to say in their solos. Clearly, Mayall still loves the process of making music, but sadly, he has been forced to concede to the limitations placed on him by aging, changing musical fashions, and the finances that prevent him from hiring a band that shares his level of experience. Those doubting that Mayall still has a lot of talent at his command should spend some time with the DVD of his 70th birthday concert, during which he was joined by many of his old pals. When given the opportunity to play with sympathetic collaborators, he is still capable of giving a rousing performance.
The songs from Mayallís latest outing Tough fared worst of all. He hasnít had time to develop them on the road, and as a result, they sounded generic and overwrought, almost in spite of Mayallís best efforts to get his ensemble to breathe life into them. Therefore, Mayall was at his best when he was tackling material that has been in his repertoire for a while. A 15-minute version of Parchman Farm ó another chestnut from his classic 1966 endeavor ó allowed him to demonstrate his considerable chops on the harmonica, and it highlighted his ability to improvise within the structure of a very familiar tune. It was genuinely touching to watch Mayall as he wiggled and contorted his body to find a position that allowed him to wail with the soulfulness of a man half his age.
The highlight of the evening came when Mayall delivered a surprisingly emotional reading of Broken Wings, a lesser-known track from his 1967 effort The Blues Alone. Perched over his organ, he was in full command of his Muse as he explored the songís textures in a rare moment of chemistry and playful interplay with Tom Canning, the bandís other keyboard player. Mayallís vocals were positively chilling as he spent 12 minutes traversing the cutís emotional terrain by riding the sort of nuance-laden backbeat that too often was missing over the course of the evening. If the outfit had shown the same level of sensitivity during the rest of the concert, it would have been a night to remember. Unfortunately, this was not the case as the collective favored a pedal-to-the-metal approach, regardless of whether a particular tune merited it.
After two full sets and nearly three hours of music, Mayall left the stage. This may be his last visit to Vancouver, and perhaps knowing this, the crowd of mostly over-50, leather-clad blues fans responded ecstatically from the beginning to the end of the show. There is no other way to explain their exuberant response to a performance that was rather unsatisfying. For all of the noise that Mayall and his band made, the blistering solos ultimately felt empty. The type of heavy blues that Mayall delivered on this rainy November night in Vancouver fell out of fashion years ago, and it is not indicative of the best music in his canon.
When he was at the top of his game, Mayall knew better than anyone else that less is more when it comes to playing the blues. He once was capable of writing and performing songs that were emotionally exciting and musically satisfying. As things are, itís a shame that he left behind such a dreadful impression. It would have been better if he had simply ended the show in the same fashion as he began it: leaning over and blowing his harmonica for all he was worth as he sang Another Man Done Gone with the joy and abandon of someone who loves music more than anything else in the world.
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