John Mayall Quartet and Al Kooper Funk Faculty Band
April 21, 2007
Legendary British Bluesman John Mayall is still going strong at the age of 73, still preaching the gospel of the blues with all the energy and cleverness one has grown to expect over the decades. On his latest tour, which stopped at the Egg in Albany, N.Y. on April 21, he's saluting another blues icon, guitarist Freddie King, who died over 30 years ago at the young age of 46, but not before influencing many who came after him. At the core of the tour is the release on April 19 of Mayall's latest recording In the Palace of the King (Eagle Records), which consists of songs dedicated or made popular by guitarist King (no relation to bluesmen B.B. or Albert).
Mayall shared the bill with veteran rock/pop/blues and whatever musician Al Kooper, who helped found Blood Sweat & Tears in the 1960s as well as the Blues project and whose career has crossed paths and contributed to a number of other legendsJimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, individual members of the Beatlesand that just scratches the surface.
Mayall has eschewed the jazz elements that fans might have appreciated when he had trumpeter Blue Mitchell and saxophonists like Fred Solomon and Red Hollander in his bands. But jazz is still the first cousin of the blues, and the silver-haired Mayall puts across his brand of that genre one might subtitle it "goodtime music with aplomb. The set was almost all music from the new CD (his 56th!), but there was "Room to Move as wellfor fans of the old guard who needed it.
His quartet featured the sizzling blues guitar of Buddy Whittington, who can hold his own with the best of them. Mayall played primarily keyboards and the harmonica in his now-trademark style, favoring multi- note sonic blasts over the chords and rhythms rather than unbroken searing single-note howls. Whatever his technique, he still knows how to get that feeling across, uplifting and spirited.
Freddie King influenced the likes of Eric Clapton and even Stevie Ray Vaughan. The best-known songs of the Texas native-turned-Chicago bluesman were titles like "Have You Ever Loved a Woman and "Hideaway. Mayall the Godfather of British Blues has always had a deep appreciation for, and been influenced by, the American blues giants, even blues/jazzer Mose Allison. From the new disk, he broke out tunes that included "I Love You More Every Day, "Some Other Day Some Other Time, and "Palace of the King, the latter a tune Leon Russell had a hand in penning.
Robben Ford, another stellar blues guitarist, once wrote "Cannonball Shuffle for Freddie King, and Mayall reprised the song. It featured Whittington at his hottest. Throughout the performance he spit out clear, clean notes in his solos, filled with energy yet somehow uncluttered. (Think vintage Dickie Betts, back in the day, perhaps).
"When It's Time to Go, Mayall said, was inspired by the passing of his mother. It's a slow, fulsome blues, and Mayall sang it in fine fashion. His high-pitched voice may seem odd to the uninitiated; it hasn't changed over the years and remains strong, impassioned and supple. It's a signature sound, indeed, and one his fans enjoy. "The King of Kings is Mayall's one salute to his hero and takes on a honky-tonk kind of feel, with Mayall pounding out two-fisted barrelhouse piano over the lyrics that reference Freddie's influence. The set was fast paced and enjoyable. Mayall isn't a museum on tour: he's still an entertainer and contributor. Good times.
Kooper is a do-all in the rock world keyboard player, producer, songwriter, collaborator, organizer, educator (he has taught at the renowned Berklee school where he was given a doctorate in 2001 in a ceremony that also honored Elvin Jones) among other things. His set with his Funk Faculty band started with a very pedestrian and mundane couple of songs with himself on guitar in front of bass and drums. What appeared headed to a borefest changed when he seated himself at the organ. "Now we're going to get serious, he said. He obviously meant it.
Out came first guitarist Chris Lewis and eventually Jeff Stout on trumpet and Daryll Lowery on sax and flute. The group locked into its groove-based tunes with an iron-clad grip. Houdini couldn't have unlocked those grooves. Eve Kooper's vocals became far more soulful than the opening. Lewis showed strong rock/ blues chops each time he was called upon, and the horns, besides lending another color to the arrangements, provided some solid solo moments.
"The Flute Thing, written during Blues Project days, featured Lowery on flute but also gave Stout a good moment in the sun. Jumping between organ and electric piano, Kooper wasn't awe-inspiring on the instruments, but knew exactly where to put the right riffs for the right moods and the right sounds for the right situation. Soulful and funky.
It was almost begrudgingly that Kooper introduced a song he said they had to do "whether they wanted to or not, which turned out to be "I Love You More Than You'll ever Know, the hit he wrote for BS&T on Child Is Father to the Man featuring Randy Brecker among the horn section (prior to David Clayton Thomas days). If it truly is a song he'd rather not do (and those comments could have been sarcasm, as confirmed by the droll humor of other banter between songs), the performance wasn't perfunctory. It kicked, carrying all of the pathos and even cool that one would expect.
Kooper, 63, joked that it was nice to finally be on a bill with someone older than himself, namely Mayall. Age notwithstanding, these are two gentlemen who are still very worthy not merely of respect but our attention.