First Appeared in The Music Box, October 2009, Volume 16, #10
Written by John Metzger
Tue October 27, 2009, 06:30 AM CDT
John Mayall was the elder statesman of the British blues scene when Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page were just beginning to get their careers underway. Therefore, when Mayall announced last year that he was feeling too much pressure from his busy schedule ó both on the road and in the studio ó the news wasnít entirely unexpected. He subsequently disbanded the Bluesbreakers, leaving many fans with the impression that he was on the verge of retiring. Since then, Mayall has been anything but quiet. He not only joined fellow harmonica player Mark Hummel for a series of concerts, but he also assembled a new collective to record Tough, the 57th album of his career.
Mayall, who will turn 76 next month, has always managed to mask his advancing age by surrounding himself with an assortment of younger musicians. In many ways, the rotating cast of characters that has supported him over the years has succeeded in keeping him on his toes. As a result, Mayall frequently has shown more of a spark than the up-and-coming acts who should be lapping at his heels because they still have youth on their side. Nevertheless, it undeniably is surprising to hear how scrappy Mayall sounds on Tough. More often than not, it is he, rather than his sidemen, who stirs the pot and elevates the intensity of the music. To put it simply, the energy that Mayall brings to the proceedings is seemingly endless.
Throughout Tough, Mayall alternates among a variety of instruments ó piano, organ, harmonica, and several guitars. Although he certainly would be excused if he merely dashed off a few notes before quickly passing the reigns to his accompanists, Mayall never fails to maintain complete control by giving everything he has to the endeavor. Heís sharp, too, particularly when he plays organ and harmonica, and essentially, he challenges his collaborators to match his focused execution. The result is a relentless, surging assault that runs the gamut from the dark, foreboding ambience of Nothing to Do with Love to the funky vibrations of Just What Youíre Looking For to the stampeding charge of Train to My Heart.
However, there is one facet of Mayallís performance that hasnít escaped the march of time: his singing voice. For the most part, the forcefulness of the music overcomes the frailty of his vocals, but overall, it is almost too much to bear. Like most of Mayallís endeavors, Tough revolves around the message that although life is hard and temptations abound, love inevitably will conquer all. Yet, itís challenging for him to convey these sentiments effectively when the subtle, emotional nuances necessary for pulling everything together are lost in the process. In the end, while Mayall has added yet another solid endeavor to his massive canon, Tough isnít strong enough to rank among the highlights of his career.
Of Further Interest...
Tough is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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