John Mayall's legacy as a legendary figure in blues music in general, not just in Britain, was well-established before the end of the sixties. By the time 1969 arrived, he had enlisted, collaborated with and seen move on, the likes of Eric Clapton, Peter Green, John McVie, Mick Fleetwood and Mick Taylor (among others), all of whom became, to a greater or lesser degree, famous names with other affiliations such as Cream, Rolling Stones and Fleetwood Mac.
True to his own inner compass, however, Mayall was hungry for a radical change in his music to accompany as well as reflect the fundamental changes occurring in his personal life, including the breakup of his first marriage and his move to America to establish a new home. This DVD, and to a lesser extent, the companion piece CD, chronicle this evolution of John's and extend the documentary time-line to his most recent project, a prestigious benefit concert in 2003 celebrating his 70th birthday, where he reunited with a number of his past masters, including most notably Eric Clapton.
The two videos included on the DVD make for separate viewing, but are actually intertwined. The Turning Point is a somewhat amateurish b&w documentary loosely focused on Mayall's work with his drummerless band in 1969. It alludes to, but does not explore in depth, the personal dynamic of the band itself, but instead interjects footage of past members of Mayall group's in reflection upon the leader himself and the concept of the-then current group: not surprisingly, drummers Colin Allen and Aynsley Dunbar's rueful comments are the most interesting apart from Peter Green's affectionate ruminations on his relationship with Mayall.
The Godfather of British Blues makes extensive use of footage from this film, not surprisingly since it was conceived and assembled by Peter Gibson, who was involved in both projects: this long-range perspective gives continuity as well as a healthy perspective to the films and, more importantly, to the subject of the films. There's as much insight into the man that is John Mayall here as there is into the musicians in his band(s) and you come away with a much clearer picture of just how dynamic is the personality that took on a career in blues as a crusade rather than just a vocation.
Mayall's eccentricities---living in a treehouse, paying the role of business man as well as bandleader, collecting all manner of musical and non-musical memorabiliapaint a picture of a renaissance man equally at home designing the artwork to album covers as playing the blues harp (a large selection of which he is often seen wearing in a leather belt/holster). With that in mind, it's slightly disappointing the DVD isn't a more extensive portrayal of the man and his work. Certainly, The Godfather piece will interest and entice even fans to explore Mayall's career in greater depthallusions to his jazz experiments abound but are given no ore or less attention than any other period of his careerbut the absence of more extensive features on the DVD is bound to be somewhat frustrating. The only extra included is a photo gallery, which on its own terms is worth seeing for the varied shots of John at work and at play, but in some cases, you have to wish for captions to give a full explanation of the significance of the picture: the shot of Mayall playing with John Lee Hooker may strike a chord of familiarity with only the most devout fans of both musicians.
Since John Mayall spoke so forthrightly in his interview for this film, it's might've been worthwhile suggesting a commentary on the photos by the man himself. The full transcript of the sessions with the various interviewees could be nothing less than fascinating, give some of the subjects, such as the modern day Eric Clapton (especially as he's contrasted with the slender, hirsute character appearing in the films) as well as the candor with which they speak. Mayall's original record producer Mike Vernon is particularly insightful in his description of the music itself and the means by which it was recorded, so more time with him would doubtlessly be edifying; perhaps to have a similar sit-down with John's current long-time studio comrade David Z would further illuminate the progression this blues icon has made over the forty-plus years he's been working.
That's not to say the DVD is less than satisfying, but only that, with the technology at hand, and given John Mayall's ready and willing capability to examine his music and himself, that so much more might've been included. The absence of such additions doesn't in any way demean the subject himself, who early on in both films, comes across as a musician who thrives on the interchange with his audience as only an authentic working musician can; this dynamic, as much as John Mayall's commitment to the blues and his restless search for variations on that theme, is key to how fascinating he really is.
Of course, the foundation of this fascination is the music itself and it's tantalizingly rendered during the course of the DVD, which is why it's a godsendalbeit only a natural extension of the projectto have a double CD package including live and studio selections from various points of John Mayall's career collected in one set. Not that there's any shortage of anthologies covering his career! ...Keep in mind too that The Turning Point itself was recently reissued in expanded remastered form by Universal and while it was truly an exceptional piece of work to begin with, it has been genuinely improved through the inclusion of three extra tracks and the digital enhancement of a sterling original recording overseen by engineer Eddie Kramer (who worked extensively with Hendrix) at Bill Graham's Fillmore East.
The Turning Point soundtrack CD set helps reaffirm points touched upon during the film(s) but due to the nature of the medium and the concept of the documentaries themselves, not fully explored. Guitarist Mick Taylor, who is touring with Mayall right now in Europe after having also appeared at the 70th Birthday event, comments wryly on the means by which John Mayall turned the blues into his own personal expression while Chris Welch's extensive enthusiastic liner notes to the cd'sas a former contributor to England's Melody Maker, Welch knows whereof he speaksilluminate how profound an accomplishment that is: a groundbreaker in many ways, Mayall, perhaps most significantly of all, progressed from raw covers of blues tunes to more polished presentations of his own self-composed material, a leap many other similarly ambitious musiciansthe late Michael Bloomfield comes to mind and arguably Clapton as wellwere never able to make.
Even early on, however, Mayall & Co didn't just play blues songs, but took to exploring blues music. More than one mention in the documentaries refers to John's preference not to compose set lists, but often just take the stage with his band and improvise songs choices and performances. While it may seem, looking at the cd title list, that repetition of songs such as "Can't Sleep This Night" and "I'm Gonna Fight for You JB" (a tribute to Mayall's main muse of a comparatively little know Mississippi musician) would make this package ripe only for archivists and devout fans, to hear the tracks is simply to marvel at how such high-calibre musicians find the nuance in the material and each other's musicianship. A jazz-blues fusion began long before John Mayall actually gave that title to a project of his.
Through the two versions of "California," it becomes clear the blues as a form of expression is as close to the Briton's heart as the subject of such songs as "Saw Mill Gulch Road." Each of the takes of the former is, in its own way, as hypnotic as insistent: the firm backbone of Steve Thompson's bass is ever-present, but carries no more emotional or musical impact than the filigreed acoustic fingerpicking of guitarist Jon Mark. There's a quiet abandon in Johnny Almond's sax solos that find their counterpart in the melodic intros and fills he also provides on flute, while Mayall's own harp playing (most conspicuously present during "Room to Move") and muted electric guitar work supply the genuine blues framework within which the band operates. What the recordings on this two-cd set lack in high-fidelity(and technical/production credits) is more than compensated for by the tangible atmosphere of the clubs and colleges where John Mayall and his band establish a deep and immediate bond with their audiences. There's a time and place artfully captured here, but it's also true that the timeless quality of great music is ever-present as well.
John Mayall's regular flow of product over the last few years, including new albums like Stories
and reissues such as the expanded Back to the Roots
, bodes well for his fans and those likeminded musicians, such as The Allman Brothers Band, who have remained loyal to their roots while at the same time turning the music they love into a chronicle of their own lives. Given the plethora of recordings John Mayall's produced during the course of his career, revisiting projects such as Jazz Blues Fusion
holds a tremendous potential, even though the man is not given to repeating himself in any way shape or form. "The Turning Point" was actually just one of many decisive courses of action taken by "The Godfather of British Blues."
1. Parchman Farm, 2. Don't Waste My Time, 3. Sleeping by Her Side, 4. Room to Move Mayall, 5. Saw Mill Gulch Road, 6. Can't Sleep This Night, 7. Thoughts About Roxanne, 8. I'm Gonna Fight for You JB, 9. I'm Gonna Fight for You JB, 10. California, 11. Can't Sleep This Night, 12. So Hard to Share, 13. Don't Waste My Time, 14. I'm Gonna Fight for You JB, 15. The Laws Must Change, 16. California, 17. California
John Mayall: guitar, harp, piano, percussion & vocals; Steve Thompson: electric bass; Jon Mark: acoustic guitar; Johnny Almond: saxophones and flutes
Visit John Mayall on the web at www.johnmayall.com .