Another Palace, Another King: John Mayall in Cologne
May 12, 2009
Sometimes a mix of the old and the new is a formula yielding timelessness.
The latest soulful and rollicking incarnation of John Mayall and his blues-based sidekicks, assembled just a few months back, reportedly assures a new album due out this fall. If this current lineupRocky Athas (guitar), Greg Rzab (bass), Jay Davenport (drums), and Tom Canning (keyboard)manages to capture even half the energy and expertise it laid out for a swinging swarm of devotees in Koln, the prolific, long-running, 75-year-old Mayall should have some more fresh classics for his catalog.
"We only started playing together a little while ago," said Mayall, "I was going for Rocky specifically after I heard him quite a few years ago with Buddy Guy. I feel really good about the new band. It's like the old days with a new feeling."
The feeling was mutual throughout Mayall's nearly two-hour set. The crowd frequently shouted statements like "Stay with us all night, John, and play those old blues!" The broken but deeply sincere English seemed to inspire Mayall's men to greater heights.
Die Kantine has a solid reputation for hosting iconic acts, and Mayall's set bolstered that streak. Outside of approximately two dozen barstools, everyone in the place was up from the opening G note. That's standard protocol for such events in Germany, but from the looks of things everyone would have been on their feet anyway.
Mayall began the evening with a stirring solo version of the Sonny Boy Williamson II standard "Another Man Done Gone" that had the appreciative audience clapping along to Mayall's soaring harp as if they had joined Sonny in blues heaven.
Among many high points, "Chicago Line," from John Mayall Plays John Mayall (Decca, 1965) and the brand new drinking days' riff, "Slow Train to Nowhere," showcased the rumbling rhythm section of Rzab and Davenport like a windy city railway yard overflowing with thunderous tracks. This was blues at its non-psychedelic heaviest.
Athas and his stratocaster played a major role, and after many solos Mayall simply repeated the word "outstanding," an accurate appraisal of both Athas' dexterity and the show itself. When Athas ripped through "Hideaway" from Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton (Decca, 1966), he showed that Slowhand wasn't the only perfect fit in Mayall's scheme of things.
Mayall stuck with a Roland RD700GX for most of the night but strapped on a Vox 12-string for the new song "Numbers Down," a Derek and the Dominoes meets Lynyrd Skynyrd groove. At one point, Mayall danced into his harmonica case and scattered harps over the stage. Not a beat was missed as a dozen handback helpers caressed the almost sacred instruments.
There was even a minor punk moment when Mayall gashed a forearm, then declined a towel for the blood.
"The excitement brushes off," observed Mayall. "German audiences are always very enthusiastic and they make their presence known. Certain titles get requested all the time. We play a collection that people know, but give them an opportunity to be updated. Variety is the big thing in picking a set list, with different feels and sounds."
The brightest moment of the evening was also a deeply pleasant surprise when the band launched into an inspired reinterpretation of what is probably the signature song in Mayall's canon, "Room to Move" from The Turning Point (Polydor, 1969).
If the facial gestures of the players meant anything, they were stretching themselves as far as the tune would permit. If the faces of people rocking out near the stage indicated satisfaction level, dharma was achieved well before the "All Your Love" encore and Mayall's solo boogie-woogie climax that gave a shout to Long John Baldry.
"My energy comes from the music itself," concluded Mayall. "And from the band. You can't help it, of course, especially with their experience. There are elements like jazz improvisation. Freedom is the operative word."
Perhaps the most impressive factor of the Mayall experience was the fine mix of polished professionalism and spontaneous, down-to-earth emotion displayed by every member of Mayall's team. The attention to details during sound check showed how important the audience was to the performers and production crew alike, and that attentiveness clearly came through in the music to follow.
This was the antithesis to the familiar and tiresome scenario of crew members still checking hook ups at the advertised starting time. Tour manager Claude Taylor wore many competent hats while Mayall and his cheerful colleagues paid attention to any detail that ensured maximum enjoyment.
Ultimately, both the band and their devotees were well-rewarded on a primo beano night indeed. In fitting relation to his last album tributing Freddie King, Mayall and his able assistants turned Kantine into a palace, as Mayall himself embodied durable blues royalty.