John Mayall’s concerts of recent years can seem somewhat ritualized and to some extent this double CD of a show in Liverpool, England celebrating his 70th (!) is no exception. But the venerable British bluesman, excited himself about the occasion, demonstrates his long-standing ability to meld musicians into cohesive units and thereby coax consummate musicianship from the individuals within the group.
This is pure wizardry—and perhaps there’s no better word for it considering Mayall's longevity as well as the personnel involved here, one of whom, Eric Clapton, hasn’t actually played with Mayall for close to 40 years. It is both wondrous and confounding to hear the fierce contributions of Mick Taylor on “Blues for the Lost Days” and “Walking on Sunset,” since he gave so much to Mayall’s late '60s band before joining the Rolling Stones for what is arguably their most musicianly period ( Sticky Fingers / Exile on Main St ). Taylor doesn’t force himself into the forefront when he joins Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, though, which may explain his descent into relative obscurity once leaving Mayall, his only high-profile after that being work for Bob Dylan circa 1984.
Clapton's subsequent appearance on stage becomes an escalation of intensity following Taylor’s. Slowhand’s fiery execution, on “Hideaway” and “All Your Love” in particular, is so far removed from the tepid likes of his recent live and studio work, not to mention this year's lukewarm tribute to Robert Johnson, it begs the question, maybe once and for all, if he actually excels only when he plays for someone else.
Those tracks are blues pure and simple, while the performances in which horn player/arranger Henry Lowther participates provide the link between blues and jazz, a communion often overlooked in the John Mayall canon (he actually titled one album Jazz Blues Fusion ). And it’s not just the presence of the horn section on one of Mayall’s most famous tunes, “California,” it’s the performances throughout these two CDs where the band, at any given moment, kicks into a self-generated high gear of improvisation that is the essence of good jazz.
All of which ignores the production of this set by Mayall and David Z, who have worked as a team consistently over Mayall's last few studio albums and have collaborated here to capture a full-bodied polish that allows the music itself to breathe. Ironically, this may be most evident on the Bluesbreakers’ somewhat perfunctory two-song introductory set, which gives only a hint of their empathy with the leader of the band and no more than slight intimations of the fireworks to come.
Personnel: John Mayall - Guitar, Harmonica, Piano, Vocals;
Mick Taylor - Guitar;
Henry Lowther - Trumpet;
Julian Arguelles - Baritone Sax;
Tom Canning - Organ, Piano;
Eric Clapton - Guitar, Vocals;
Joe Yuele - Drums;
Dave Lewis - Tenor Sax;
Buddy Whittington - Guitar, Vocals;
Hank Van Sickle - Bass Guitar;
Chris Barber - Trombone.