John Mayall, his current band, and some of his old mates got together for a blues blowout in Liverpool nine years ago, with Mick Taylor and Eric Clapton dropping in. It was taped and is now available from Netflix (you can also buy it if you're so moved) on a Blu-ray DVD. The sound and video quality are about ideal.
Watching it often propelled my mind back 40 years. Among my fellow heads in Berkeley, late '60s, Mayall's albums cornered a large bit of our attention. Mayall was the pre-eminent pioneer of electric blues in England. His first Bluesbreakers album helped popularize Eric Clapton. The second featured Peter Green (later to found the original Fleetwood Mac) as lead guitarist. Mick Taylor took over the role in the third album. We played them all in "heavy rotation," as they say in radio biz.
Mayall, gray-haired and wearing the inevitable tank top in the video, isn't some old specimen for nostalgia buffs. He remains an outstanding keyboard player and blues harmonica player -- he blows an amazing Sonny Boy Williamson-style solo on one of the numbers in this concert -- and a guitarist to boot. There aren't any flies on his latest Bluesbreakers band incarnation either: as the video shows, they're probably the equal of his classic ensembles. The band's lead guitarist, Buddy Whittington, has no need to be embarrassed in the company of guest players Mick Taylor and Eric Clapton.
I went to a concert with Mayall and Taylor about 1985. Mayall wasn't a big draw at the time, considered something of a has-been, not yet old enough to be a "legend." Mick Taylor's time with the Stones was over, too. So the concert venue was literally a roadhouse, a dingy building off the highway north from Santa Fe to Taos.
As I recall, the first set was well along and there was no sign of Taylor. Was he doing a superstar act to build up anticipation? Had he forgotten the concert or got lost somewhere in the wilds of New Mexico?
When he finally took the stage, wearing a kind of embroidered silk kimono, I thought: yup, he's going to prance around like Zeus on speed and command our worship. But no. Histrionics, none. His expression was vacant, body language statue-like. Throughout the rest of the performance, he seemed to be mentally somewhere else. I couldn't help wondering if he was coked to the gills.
But whatever was going on with him, it didn't inhibit his playing, which was everything I'd hoped for. That guitar was on fire.
In Mayall's birthday concert video, Taylor has put on weight, wears a striped business shirt under a plain jacket, and exhibits much the same lack of affect -- he actually seems shy. I found myself feeling protective toward him, ridiculous as that sounds. How refreshing to see a guitar whiz just concentrating on making music without gestures and anguished expressions.
Clapton is on good form. I can't say I've warmed to his albums I've heard since The Cream, but he returns to his blues roots here and it's easy to see why he was such a sensation in '60s London. I wish, though, that Peter Green had been in the concert; he's still the finest electric blues guitarist I've ever heard. But I guess his famous eccentricity was still too much for Mayall or the concert producer to want to deal with.
I don't much care for blues anymore. It's too limited a genre, tiresomely predictable, taken up by too many mediocre musicians -- a default setting for bar bands and retro teenagers. But it's a pleasure to see and hear Mayall and his way-back machine still at the top of their game. You understand how they lit up a musical generation.