Saturday, August 28, 2010

John Mayall: Back to the Roots

John Mayall, not to be confused with that other fine musician John Mayer, is one of those living legends of music who through his many band lineups mentored many other musicians. The list includes such greats as Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce of Cream; Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones; Larry Taylor and Harvey Mandel of Canned Heat; Peter Green, Mick Fleetwood, and John McVie of Fleetwood Mac; Johnny Almond and Jon Mark of Mark Almond; Andy Fraser of Free; Jon Hiseman and Dick Heckstall-Smith of the Graham Bond Organization; Hughie Flint of McGuinness Flint; and countless others.

While some in that long list of names undoubtedly will be familiar, others may not. Be that as it may, the first John Mayall album I bought was the double LP from 1971 and was called “Back to the Roots.” By 1972, the album could be found in the cutout bins and was highly recommended by my older brother who had been a Mayall fan for years. I found the album to be refreshing and quite an education in the musicians that were featured in the Bluesbreakers – Mayall’s premier band.

The album was a reunion of sorts of Mayall with those who honed their skills in the Bluesbreakers. The double album on Polydor featured 18 cuts that showed a multifaceted side of multi-instrumentalist Mayall on guitar, keyboards, and harmonica. While I won’t feature every song on the LP, I will showcase a few of the better selections.

Blue Fox

This instrumental rocks. The interplay between Mayall’s harmonica and Sugarcane Harris’ fiddle is absolutely fantastic. The close mic placement on Mayall picks up every breath, grunt, and groan as he wails. While producers might be hesitant to include such extraneous sounds on a recording, they add to the flavor of this tune. Jerry McGee is the featured guitarist. Check it out.

Unanswered Questions

Featuring Canned Heat alumni Larry Taylor on bass and Harvey Mandel on lead guitar, “Unanswered Questions” features Mayall on organ and once again the violin of Don “Sugarcane” Harris. It answers the question, can a violin be a blues instrument? Most definitely. My favorite part – the tight ending. They just don’t end songs this way anymore.

Dream with Me

This is a great little tune that opens side three of the LP features the flute of Johnny Almond. Both Mayall and Mandel share guitar duties on the laid back number with Larry Taylor and Keef Hartley as the rhythm section. Johnny Almond is the star on this cut.

Marriage Madness

“Marriage Madness” is slow blues at its best and features Mayall on a Hammond B3 organ and former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor on lead guitar. I forgot how great a guitarist Taylor was – he got his start with Mayall and was hired to replace Brian Jones who first quit the Stones and then died less than a month later. Taylor was 20 years old at the time he joined the Rolling Stones and only 22 on this recording. Wow, what talent. In the mix, Johnny Almond adds alto and tenor sax.

Goodbye December

Opening up side four is a mellow ditty featuring the lead guitar of Mr. Slowhand: Eric Clapton. Mandel and Mayall also play guitar. Keef Hartley’s drumming is, how you say, interesting on this cut. “Goodbye December” also proves that Mr. Mayall can play some laid back harmonica licks as well. While it’s not my favorite cut of the album these days, it was for a very long time.

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