Redoubtable and self-motivated as ever Just shy of his eightieth birthday, John Mayall recorded an album with his current band late in 2013 that suggests in no uncertain terms he remains as potent a blues musician as the members of his group merely half his age. He titled A Special Life with the same knowing understatement he writes, plays and sings (and renders the cover art as well).
That's not to say there's much profound in the material itself, but only that the longevity of the man known as the 'Godfather of British Blues' imparts a significance to songs such as "Why Did You Go Last Night" and "Speak of the Devil" they would not carry coming from another musician. The common language of the latter's Sonny Landreth-composed title phrase radiates a wry tone almost equal to the latent sarcasm in "That's All Right," but, more importantly, shines with the authenticity of the genre Mayall's explored from so many different perspectives during the course of his career.
The no-frills approach he adopted with his current quartet thus is nothing really new, but only refreshed with the presence of new players in collaboration with the leader. "World Gone Crazy," to name just one track, allows more room for his own presence as an instrumentalist-his piano is the dominant sound along with a pithy harp-and the rhythm section bassist Greg Rzab and drummer Jay Davenport behind him is sure and nimble. Meanwhile, the topical approach Mayall assumes here takes the form of a litany of observations sans the proselytizing to which he has so often fallen prey on similarly-conceived songs.
Albert King's "Floodin' in California" hews to the same lines, its A-A-B lyrics structure highlighted by a prominent organ part that contrasts effectively with the crisp electric guitar of Rocky Athas. Produced as most of his latter-day albums by John Mayall himself, A Special Life boasts a clean clear mix in keeping with the simplicity of the arrangements, a virtue co-producer and engineer Eric Corne (at whose studio the album was recorded) help shape. And while it's true there's nothing exactly innovative here, it is neverthless true that numbers like the title song, and the longest track here, "Just A Memory," are as emotionally open and forthright as any this veteran has ever composed. No doubt the relative speed with which the album was recorded (slightly less than a week!)precluded the second-guessing that undermines such clarity of thought and feeling.
C.J. Chenier guests on accordion and vocals during two tracks, adding to the genuine presence that permeates A Special Life. "I Just Got to Know" thus transcends cliché through the novelty of the collaboration, not to mention the level of inspiration shared by the players now working with Mayall (Rzab even chips in "Like A Fool," an original of no little panache). Crisp electric piano only further accentuates the elemental power in the electric guitar showcased on this cut, a trait of some significance given John Mayall's mentoring of great axemen in his history (the short list including Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor and Peter Green during the early days of the Bluesbreakers.
That epiphany of John Mayall's that led to the comparatively quick conception and execution of A Special Life is the source of its unusual glow, but it is, at the same time, a testament the man's well-honed patience: five years since his last studio outing was worth waiting for another estimable entry in his lengthy discography
Track Listing: Why Did You Go Last Night; Speak Of The Devil; That's All Right; World Gone Crazy;
Floodin' In California ; Big Town Playboy; A Special Life; I Just Got To Know; Heartache;
Like A Fool; Just A Memory.