Jethro Tull Release First New Album in More Than 20 Years

Lately, it almost starts feeling like I live in some parallel universe of March 1971 and the present. In March 1971, both Jethro Tull and John Mayall released new albums, Aqualung and Back to the Roots, respectively. Last Friday, January 28, the same thing happened again. While I had known about Mayall’s record The Sun is Shining Down, which I reviewed here yesterday, Jethro Tull’s The Zealot Gene came as a total surprise. Not only is history’s repetition remarkable, but also the fact that both new releases are truly compelling.

The Zealot Gene is Tull’s 22nd studio album and their first new record since The Jethro Tull Christmas Album from September 2003. It also is their first new album of all-new music since J-Tull Dot Com that came in August 1999. Of course, four-fifths of 2022 Tull are different compared to 1971. But the most important original member, Ian Anderson, is still around, and, boy, does he sound great! His vocals and multi-instrumental chops including his distinguished flute-playing remain in mighty shape.

Jethro Tull (clockwise from upper left): Ian Anderson, Joe Parrish, David Goodier, John O’Hara and Scott Hammond

The other members of Tull aren’t exactly newbies either. Joe Parrish (guitar), John O’Hara (piano, keyboards, accordion), David Goodier (bass, double bass) and Scott Hammond (drums, percussion) each are experienced musicians. Except for Parish who became a member in 2020, each has been part of the band’s touring lineup for various years. The album also features Florian Opahle on electric guitar, who played with Tull from 2003 until 2019.

Here’s some additional background on The Zealot Gene from Tull’s website: A record that began to take shape as early as 2017, ‘The Zealot Gene’, in many ways, seeks to defy convention during a time when the business of being a touring and recording artist has never faced more uncertainties. Tull bandleader Ian Anderson holds no reservations about the role for which the mythos and themes of Biblical storytelling played in the lyrical content of the new album, saying:

“While I have a spot of genuine fondness for the pomp and fairytale story-telling of the Holy Book, I still feel the need to question and draw sometimes unholy parallels from the text. The good, the bad, and the downright ugly rear their heads throughout, but are punctuated with elements of love, respect, and tenderness.

Looking back on the earth-shaking disruption of the Coronavirus pandemic, which ultimately ended the band’s touring plans and hopes of a 2020 release for ‘The Zealot Gene’, Anderson shares, “It was so sudden. Amidst the concerns and warnings of the scientific community and a few more enlightened politicians, we all retreated in disbelief to our homes to wait out the storm.”

I’d say let’s go for some music. Here’s the opener Mrs Tibbets. Like all other tracks on the album, it was written by Anderson. “One of the words that I wrote was ‘retribution,’ which was visited upon the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah by the angry God, Yahweh,” Anderson told Apple Music in discussing some of the tracks in greater detail. “Lot and his wife escaped, but she turned around to look at the destruction behind her and was turned into a pillar of salt, according to biblical tales. That brought up the inevitable comparison with someone turning to face a 2,000-foot air burst above Hiroshima. So I decided to write an analogous song based on the visitation of Little Boy, dropped by the air crew captain Paul Tibbets, son of Enola Gay Tibbets.” Check out that cool sound!

The title track is “about the polarization of opinion-making in contemporary society, largely through social media, but also through—quite rightly in a democratic world—freedom of speech, the right to express your opinion,” Anderson explained to Apple Music. “But these days that opinion reaches further and faster and in more forcible terms as a result of social media—and can be used in a way that is often very hurtful, very cruel, very socially divisive.” Here’s the official video – reminds me a bit of Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

Shoshana Sleeping “is a slightly erotic observation of the human form, but in a respectful and hands-off kind of a way,” Anderson noted. “Hopefully you would get the impression in the lyrics that the person singing the song is already in some kind of a relationship with the person that he’s observing sleeping. In terms of biblical references, I read some verses from the Song of Solomon. In the original text, sometimes it takes on a pretty macho and unpleasant form—the biblical format is not terribly woke. Nonetheless, there are parts of the Song of Solomon which are very moving and spiritually generous.” Once again, an interesting official video.

Where Did Saturday Go? [this is also what I’m often asking myself once Monday hits – CMM] is one of the acoustic-focused tunes. “Again, it could be seen as a reference to waking up and not being able to remember what you did on a weekend,” Anderson said. “But there’s obviously the reference of the crucifixion of Jesus, and the Saturday following Good Friday—before Easter Sunday, the resurrection day. In this story, Saturday is very rarely mentioned. And in this 24-hour period you have to wonder what was happening in the minds of those followers of Jesus after his death but before his resurrection. But it’s never discussed to any degree in the Bible, so I’m just pondering that notion of a missing day in the narrative of Jesus.”

Let’s do one more: The closer The Fisherman of Ephesus. “In that particular song I do stay more closely to the biblical stories of what happened to the disciples of Jesus…And so the song is about guilt survival, something I know from talking to veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq, who lost their buddies, and who were scarred for life as a result of surviving when others around them died. And that happens, obviously, in car crashes, plane crashes, and probably in terms of COVID mortalities…So guilt survival is applicable right across the board. And that’s essentially the message of the song.”

I’ve heard a good deal of Jethro Tull songs, including those that are on the great 1985 compilation Original Masters, which spans the band’s first nine albums. I’ve also listened to select records like Aqualung and Thick as a Brick. This certainly doesn’t make me a Tull expert. But based on what I’ve heard, I feel confident enough to say this new album really sounds like Tull, sometimes reminding me of Aqualung. And that’s not only because of that album’s biblical references, though I will add The Zealot Gene doesn’t have obvious gems like Hymn 43 or Locomotive Breath. Still, it’s a pretty solid record. If you dig Tull, I see no reason why you wouldn’t like it.

The Zealot Gene appears on Inside Out Music, a German independent label focused on progressive rock and progressive metal. In addition to being available on streaming platforms, the album is offered in additional formats, including a special edition digipak CD, a gatefold 2LP+CD+LP-booklet, a limited 2CD+Blu-ray artbook and a limited deluxe 3LP+2CD+Blu-ray artbook.

Both artbook editions feature a second CD of demos and initial ideas, plus extended liner notes and an interview with Ian Anderson undertaken by Tim Bowness (no-man). Jeez – the days when artists simply issued their new albums on vinyl are definitely over!

Sources: Wikipedia; Jethro Tull website; Apple Music; Discogs; YouTube; Spotify

John Mayall Has Turned 85 And No Plans For Retirement After More Than 50 Years

The Godfather of British Blues has announced a tour and a new album for 2019

What do Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce have in common? Together with Ginger Baker, they formed what perhaps was the ultimate blues rock power trio Cream. How about Peter Green, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood? Well, they became part of the first incarnation of Fleetwood Mac. Andy Fraser? He joined Free as a 15-year-old bass player. Last but not least, Mick Taylor? He of course became a member The Rolling Stones during what is widely considered their musical peak. What else do all these top-notch artists share? They all played with John Mayall, mostly before they became famous.

As a ’60s blues rock fan, it is pretty much impossible not to come across the name of John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers. That being said, I’m the first to admit that oftentimes my music knowledge is still pretty insular. While I was well aware of Eric Clapton’s connection with Mayall, I didn’t know about all of the other above mentioned artists. I also had not heard much of John Mayall’s music and had not appreciated that in addition to being a multi-instrumentalist, he’s a pretty good vocalist. What finally caught my attention was a great story about him for his recent 85th birthday in German national daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which I spotted on Facebook the other day. It made me start listening to some of Mayall’s more recent solo albums I dug instantly, which in turn inspired this post.

John Mayall was born on November 29, 1933 in Macclesfield, England, and grew up in a village close to Manchester. He was first exposed to jazz and blues as a young teenager when he listened to the 78 record collection of his father Murray Mayall, a guitarist and jazz music fan. So it certainly was no coincidence that young John initially became attracted to the guitar and guitarists like Big Bill Broonzy, Brownie McGhee, Josh White and Leadbelly. As a 14-year-old, he began to learn the basics for playing the piano. A couple of years later, he also picked up the harmonica. Not only does this mean Mayall is a multi-instrumentalist, but he’s also self-taught – pretty cool!

Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton
John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers ca. 1966 (from left): John Mayall, Eric Clapton, Hughie Flint and John McVie

While Mayall had been playing music since his teenage years and during his twenties, it wasn’t until 1962 that he decided to make a living with music. He gave up his job as a graphic designer and moved from Manchester to London. Soon thereafter, he started The Bluesbreakers. In the spring of 1964, the band recorded their first two tracks: Crawling Up A Hill and Mr. James. Afterwards, they backed John Lee Hooker on his 1964 British tour. At the end of the year, Mayall signed with Decca and recorded his debut John Mayall Plays John Mayall, a live record that appeared in March 1965, but it was not successful.

Things started cooking for The Bluesbreakers when Eric Clapton joined the band in April 1965. While initially Clapton only stood until August and left for another venture called The Glands, he returned in November. A few months later, the band recorded Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton. But by the time the album was entering the charts, Clapton and then-Bluesbreakers bassist Jack Bruce had already left to form Cream. The next few years saw a succession of guitarists who came and left, including Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Jon Mark and Harvey Mandel. In fact, frequent line-up changes would become a constant for Mayall, yet I haven’t read anything that he was ever annoyed about it.

John Mayall 2018
John Mayall at 2018 Jazz Fest in New Orleans

In 1969, Mayall moved from England to Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles and began playing with American musicians. Over the next three decades, he recorded many albums featuring artists like Blue Mitchell, Red Holloway, Larry Taylor, Harvey Mandel, Buddy Guy, Mavis Staples, Albert Collins and Mick Taylor. In 2008, Mayall decided to retire The Bluesbreakers name. The following year, he started touring with Rocky Athas (guitar), Jay Davenport (drums) and Greg Rzab (bass). In 2016, after Athas had been unable to attend a festival gig due to airline cancellations, Mayall was left with Davenport and Rzab. He liked the trio format and decided to keep it until May of this year, when guitarist Caroyln Wonderland joined the band.

With a recording career of more than 50 years and 60-plus albums, it’s impossible to do Mayall and his music full justice, so the following selection can only scratch the surface. Let’s start with the above mentioned Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton. Here’s Double Crossin’ Time, a tune co-written by Mayall and Clapton. Apart from them, the core line-up of The Bluesbreakers at the time also included John McVie (bass) and Hughie Flint (drums).

In September 1967, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers released their fourth album Crusade. It was the first record with then-18-year-old Mick Taylor. Check out this hot track called Snowy Wood, which is credited to Mayall and Taylor.

To A Princess is an unusual tune from Mayall’s 13th album Empty Rooms, which appeared in 1970. It includes a bass duet featuring band member Steven Thompson and former Canned Heat bassist Larry Taylor as a guest. In addition to Mayall (vocals, harmonica, guitars, keyboards), Thompson and Taylor, other musicians on the record were Jon Mark (guitar) and Johnny Almond (saxophone, flute). Mark and Almond left right after the album’s recording to form the duo Mark-Almond.

Next up: The title track of Mayall’s 19th album Ten Years Are Gone released in September 1973. I dig the brass work on this groovy tune, which gives it a cool jazzy and soulful vibe. The musicians on the record included Mayall (piano, guitar, harmonica, vocals), Freddy Robinson (guitar), Victor Gaskin (bass), Keef Hartley (drums), Sugarcane Harris (violin), Blue Mitchell (trumpet, flugelhorn) and Red Holloway (saxophone, flute).

In 1975, Mayall’s 22nd album Notice To Appear came out. For the most part, it featured covers, including the following hot funky take of The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night. The track features Mayall (vocals), Rick Vito (guitar), Larry Taylor (bass), Soko Richardson (drums), Jay Spell (keyboards), Don Harris (violin) and Dee McKinnie (backing vocals).

In 1988, Mayall recorded his 34th album called Archives To Eighties. It included revised versions of select tunes that originally had appeared on his 1971 release Back To The Roots. Just like the earlier record, Archives To Eighties featured Eric Clapton and Mick Taylor. Here’s Force Of Nature.

Wake Up Call was Mayall’s 39th album. The Grammy-nominated record from 1994 brought together many prominent musicians, including Buddy Guy, Mick Taylor, Albert Collins and Mavis Staples, among others. Here’s the smoking hot title track with Taylor on guitar and Staples on vocals.

In 2005, Mayall released his 53rd album called Road Dogs, one of the last under The Bluesbreakers name. The band’s line-up at the time included Buddy Whittington (guitars), Hank Van Sickle (bass) and Joe Yuele (drums), in addition to Mayall (vocals, keyboard, harmonica). Following is the record’s closer Scrambling.

Here’s the title track of Mayall’s 61st record A Special Life from May 2014. It featured his then-core backing band Rocky Athas (guitar), Greg Rzab (bass, percussions) and Jay Davenport (drums), as well as C. J. Chenier (accordion, vocals). As usually, Mayall provided vocals, guitar, harmonica and keyboards.

The last album I’d like to touch on is Mayall’s most recent, Three For The Road. Released in February 2018, it is his 66th record – unbelievable! It presents live recordings from two 2017 concerts in Germany, performed by the trio format of Mayall, Rzab and Davenport. Here’s Lonely Feelings.

Just before his 85th birthday on November 29, Mayall made two announcements. After completing a few shows in California, he is planning a 2019 tour and has started booking gigs in Europe. A look on the current schedule already reveals 22 dates starting February 26 in Tampere, Finland and stretching out to March 24 in Ancona, Italy. U.S. dates are supposed to be announced soon. Mayall also revealed a new studio album, Nobody Told Me, which is scheduled to be released on February 22, 2019. Apart from his new guitarist Carolyn Wonderland, it includes numerous prominent guest guitarists, including Todd Rundgren, Steven Van Zandt and Alex Lifeson.

I’d like to finish this post with a few quotes posted on Mayall’s website, which I think speak for themselves:

John Mayall has actually run an incredible school for musician. (Eric Clapton)

John Mayall, he was the master of it. If it wasn’t for the British musicians, a lot of us black musicians in America would still be catchin’ the hell that we caught long before. So thanks to all you guys, thank you very much! (B.B. King)

I had this friend in London, John Mayall of the Bluesbreakers, who used to play me a lot of records late at night. He was a kind of DJ-type guy. You’d go back to his place, and he’d sit you down, give you a drink, and say “Just check this out.” He’d go over to his deck, and for hours he’d blast you with B.B. King, Eric Clapton – he was sort of showing me where all of Eric’s stuff was from, you know. He gave me a little evening’s education in that. I was turned on after that, and I went and bought an Epiphone. So then I could wind up with the Vox amp and get some nice feedback. (Paul McCartney)

As far as being a blues-guitar sideman, the Bluesbreakers gig is the pinnacle. That’s Mount Everest. You could play with B.B. King or Buddy Guy, but you’re just gonna play chords all night. This guy features you. You get to play solos. He yells your name after every song, brings you to the front of the stage, and lets you sing. He creates a place for you in the world. (Walter Trout)

Sources: Wikipedia, John Mayall website, YouTube