mon 18/11/2019

John Mayall, Ronnie Scott's review – the legend on his own terms | reviews, news & interviews

John Mayall, Ronnie Scott's review – the legend on his own terms

John Mayall, Ronnie Scott's review – the legend on his own terms

Support act Jim Mullen playing better than ever

John Mayall in Munich, April 2019Ralf Dombrowski

John Mayall keeps up one hell of a touring schedule for an 85-year-old. Last night's early set at Ronnie Scott's was the first of a three-night, two-houses-per-night stint at the club. And these performances come on the tail-end of around 35 previous engagements: Mayall's quartet has been criss-crossing Europe and gigging on most days since starting off in Tampere, Finland and darkness in late February. And his diary of North American dates scheduled for June and July looks pretty full too. 

Mayall, of course, is a figure of unique historical significance in shaping the course of rock music in this country and worldwide. Go back into the collective memories of even, say, Hank Marvin (floruit 1961-2) and the influence, the memory, the importance of Mayall are everywhere. If we Brits were just a tad more internationally-minded, Mayall would probably by now be classed as an item of UNESCO's intangible cultural heritage. In the meantime we probably have to accept that he and his legacy have actually been outmanoeuvred on the international stage by the Albanians: the "folk iso-polyphony" of the Labs and the Tosks has been on UNESCO's list since 2008.

Photo by Melody McLarenAnd thinking of being outgunned, the more sage of my muso friends were warning me that if I really wanted to hear the essence of white electric blues I should actually be getting out to hear either Jimmy Vaughan or Buddy Whittington rather than Mayall...

While that might be true up to a point, an 85-year-old legend has earned the right to be taken on his own terms. There is no point in even thinking that every one of John Turville's teenage pupils from the Purcell School in Bushey would have completely blown him off the stage as a keyboard player last night. And furthermore, this is not the blues as a memory of the field hollers and "shouts" of slaves. This is a version of the blues as seen through the prism of success and contentment. If one had gone to last night's gig needing to have suffering conveyed through the lyrics, then there would be disappointment: most acute portrayal of dejection or disquiet that I can claim to have located last night came in the tune "Many Roads". And what, I hear you ask, was the source of that specific and searing weltschmerz? Being left all alone on a station platform. Aw.

Musically, what differentiates the tunes is that each one has a fixed and repeated device running right through the twelve-bar form, so the band's job is to keep hammering it home, to maintain its omni-presence throughout the tune. So, in "The Moon is Full" there is a seven-note bass riff which needs the heavy lifting. It has to be kept right there, taken up the fourth and back down again. And Illinois-born Greg Rzab, who started his career with Otis Rush, is the ideal person to do it. In the tune "Gimme Some Gumbo", by contrast, the idée fixe is a specific rhythm (a '3 - 2 son clave' for the technically minded), which placed the workload onto another Chicago blues stalwart, Jay Davenport, who learnt his bluescraft from Bo Diddley's drummer Clifton James. The guitarist and occasional singer in the band is the Texan Carolyn Wonderland. She is a strong player with a great sound and variety of attack and tone on her Gibson Blueshawk, and a fine soulful voice.

The support act, the trio of guitarists Jim Mullen (Pictured above right) and Nigel Price with bassist Mick Hutton were pure delight. They travel under the name Guitarmageddon, but they exist as the ideal vehicle for Jim Mullen. A couple of years ago, the Scottish guitarist contracted a serious illness, but, mercifully, his recovery has been complete, and he is now playing better than ever. Mullen's melodic gift really is a thing of wonder. His generation  which would also include Henry Lowther and Stan Sulzmann  are the studio veterans, the unflappables, the life-as-first-take musicians. In a few precious seconds in the trio's final number, Duke Ellington's "Caravan", Mullen's joyous craft brought a smile: he managed to smuggle not just Carmen's "oiseau rebelle" into the club, but also the Irish Washerwoman. Genius.

This is the blues as seen through the prism of success and contentment

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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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