John Mayall’s New Album is a Sizzling Late Career Blues Gem

They don’t call John Mayall “The Godfather of British Blues” for nothing. If you’ve paid attention to the blues legend, which I admittedly haven’t as much as I probably should have as somebody who digs the blues, you realize the now-88-year-old has been on an incredible late-stage career roll. Between 2014 and 2019, Mayall has released four albums and just came out with yet another one. Of course, at the end of the day, it’s not only about quantity but more importantly, it’s about quality. In my book, Mayall sure as heck continues to deliver on both!

The Sun is Shining Down, which appeared last Friday, January 28 via Forty Below Records, is Mayall’s close-to-70th record overall, including his releases with The Bluesbreakers. Even if you leave out the live and compilation records, you still easily get to 50-plus albums, which have come out over a 57-year recording period. The picture below taken from Mayall’s website captures his remarkable catalog.

Sure, The Sun is Shining Down, is blues and there are only so many ways you can play the blues. While as such it’s fair to say Mayall doesn’t reinvent the genre, he still has a couple of surprises up his sleeve, which I will get to when taking a closer look at some of the album’s tracks. Mentioning the guest artists may give you a hint or two: Mike Campbell (formerly with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), Marcus King, Buddy Miller, Scarlet Rivera, Melvin Taylor and Jake Shimabukuro.

Mayall (vocals, keyboards, harp) is also backed up by his longtime Chicago rhythm section of Greg Rzab (bass) and Jay Davenport (drums), along with Austin-based guitarist Carolyn Wonderland who has been part of Mayall’s band since April 2018. And let’s not forget about the neat horn section featuring Mark Pender (trumpet), Richard Rosenberg (trombone) and Ron Dziubla (saxophone). I’d say ’nuff with background and let’s get to some music, and it’s going to be great!

John Mayall and his core band (clockwise from top left): John Mayall, Carolyn Wonderland, Greg Rzab and Jay Davenport

Here’s the album’s first track, Hungry and Ready, one of six tunes written by Mayall. The remaining four songs are covers. Mayall couldn’t have picked a better opener, which features Chicago blues guitarist Melvin Taylor. The title says it all. Mayall and his backing band clearly were ready to play some sizzling blues, and it all sounds incredibly fresh. The vibe of the tune is somewhere between Muddy Waters’ Mannish Boy and the soulful Sweet Home Chicago, Blues Brothers-style. If you dig the blues, how can you not love this!

Since I previously wrote about the excellent Can’t Take It No More featuring rising roots and blues rocker Marcus King on guitar, I’m skipping it here and go right to I’m As Good As Gone, one of the aforementioned covers. Written by Bobby Rush, the tune was first recorded for his 2011 studio album Show You a Good Time. Mayall’s rendition features Americana artist and guitarist Buddy Miller. Nice!

Next, let’s get to something you don’t frequently hear when it comes to the blues – a tune featuring a violinist playing fill-ins commonly provided by a guitar. And we’re not talking any violinist here, we’re talking Scarlet Rivera, of Bob Dylan’s legendary Rolling Thunder Revue 1975-1976 concert tour. Among others, she played that great violin part on Dylan’s Hurricane. Here’s Got to Find a Better Way, another Mayall composition. The title surely doesn’t refer to the music- check out how cool a violin can sound playing the blues!

Another highlight on the album is Chills and Thrills, a tasty funky tune written by Bernard Ellison as the title track for his 2008 album. You can check out the original here. Now let’s listen to Mayall’s rendition. I think he wisely chose to stay close to the original – why mess with something that’s perfect! This cover features the talented Mike Campbell on guitar. This is some groovy shit with a great guitar solo!

I guess by now you’ve noticed I love this album and could go on and on. The last track I’d like to call out presents another surprise. How ’bout a blues solo played on an electric ukulele? Enter Hawaiian ukulele virtuoso, Jake Shimabukuro. The song is One Special Lady, another tune penned by Mayall. The ukelele solo action starts at around 2:14 minutes. The tune also showcases Mayall’s fine skills on keyboards. Amid all the first-rate artists he has played with throughout his career and, frankly, helped nurture, Mayall oftentimes doesn’t get the credit he deserves as a musician. My only criticism here is Shimabukuro should have been given a bit more room. That ukelele blues action is super cool!

Here’s the entire album pulled from Spotify.

The Sun is Shining Down was recorded in Los Angeles, where Mayall has lived since the late ’60s, at Robby Krieger’s Horse Latitudes studio. And, yep, that’s the Robby Krieger who used to be with The Doors. The album was produced by Eric Corne, founder and president of Forty Below Records. According to his website, apart from Mayall, Corne’s impressive credits include Walter Trout, Joe Walsh, Edgar Winter, Glen Campbell, Lucinda Williams, Nancy Wilson (of Heart) and Krieger, among others.

“I couldn’t be happier with the new record,” said Mayall in a statement. “I can’t wait to share it with my fans. Each one of these special guests brings something unique to the album and our team works so well together. I think you can hear that chemistry in the music.” I couldn’t agree more!

Unfortunately but quite understandably, Mayall separately announced he will substantially scale back his touring schedule, citing the pandemic and his age. Fans will still be able to see him at local shows “and the occasional concert further afield.” Southern California is a bit far for me, but if Mayall will ever return to the New Jersey-New York-Connecticut tristate area or Philadelphia, I’d seriously consider seeing him – unfortunately, I never have. Heck, I might even return to Boston where I saw Neil Young solo in July 2018!

Sources: Wikipedia; John Mayall website; Eric Cone website; Discogs; YouTube; Spotify

Blues Veteran Walter Trout Releases Blistering New Covers Album

Survivor Blues features “obscure songs that have hardly been covered”

There’s nothing fishy about Walter Trout. For five decades, the guitarist has played and lived the blues, initially as sideman for the likes of John Lee Hooker, Joe Tax and John Mayall during the ’70s and 80s, and starting from 1989, as a solo artist. Now, Trout has released a covers album aptly titled Survivor Blues, featuring tunes he feels have been underappreciated. Since there are only so many ways you can play the blues, I think it’s all about execution. If you dig electric blues, you’re in for a trout, I mean treat!

Born on March 6, 1951 in Ocean City, N.J., Trout started his career in the Garden State in the late 1960s. In a cool video about the making of Survivor Blues, which is published on his website, Trout recalls how as a 16- or 17-year-old he met B.B. King. After spotting King in a New Jersey record store, he asked him for an autograph, saying he loved the blues and was trying to figure it out on the guitar. King ended up talking to him for more than one hour. One thing’s for sure: That conversation did not discourage young Walter Trout to pursue the blues!

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Walter Trout in 2018

In 1974, Trout moved to Los Angeles and became a sideman for R&B singer and songwriter Percy Mayfield, who among others wrote Hit The Road Jack, which became a no. 1 hit for Ray Charles in 1961. Other artists Trout backed during the 70s included  John Lee Hooker, Big Mama Thornton and Joe Tex. In 1981, he joined blues rockers Canned Heat as a guitarist. From 1985 until 1989, Trout was part of John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, following the trail of many other blues musicians. One night, he was spotted by a Danish concert promoter who offered him to pay for a solo tour.

Trout left the Bluesbreakers, and in 1989 his solo debut Life In The Jungle came out. He has since released more than 20 additional records, initially as Walter Trout Band, then as Walter Trout and the Free RadicalsWalter Trout and the Radicals and, starting with The Outsider in 2008, simply as Walter Trout. Survivor Blues is the 10th album appearing under his name and follows the award-winning We’re All In This Together. The 2017 album of original tunes features many other blues heavyweights like Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Sonny Landreth, Robben Ford and Charlie Musselwhite.

“I didn’t want to do ‘Stormy Monday’ or ‘Messin’ With The Kid.’ I didn’t want to do the Blues greatest hits,” Trout commented on the new album. I wanted to do old, obscure songs that have hardly been covered…My idea was to do these songs like me, to arrange them for my band and style – not to just copy the originals note-for-note.” Trout also sought active input from his band on how to render the songs, which were mostly recorded live in study, a smart approach, in my opinion.

walter trout 2

Trout’s wife and manager Marie came up with the record’s title. ‘You’re a group of survivors,’ she told him. ‘You’ve all been through hell and you’ve come back. These songs are survivors. This album needs to be called Survivor Blues.’ In 2014, Trout received a liver transplant after he had been diagnosed with liver failure – likely a result from alcohol and substance abuse he overcame in the ’80s. Reflecting on the members of his band, Trout said, “Mike [Michael Leasure, drums] is in recovery. Johnny [Johnny Griparic, bass] almost didn’t make it. Skip [Skip Edwards, keyboards] has had a triple bypass. And I almost didn’t make it after my liver disease in 2014.”

Time for some music. I’d like to kick it off with the excellent opener Me, My Guitar And The Blues. Written by Jimmy Dawkins, the tune was the title track of his 1997 solo album. Trout couldn’t get enough of the electric blues guitarist’s records during his early years as an up and comer in New Jersey. “The last line – ‘Since you left me, All I have left is Me, My Guitar and the Blues’ – is one of the greatest lyrics I’ve heard in my life and I start crying just saying it,” Trout stated. The lyrics are also a perfect way to set the tone for an album titled Survivor Blues.

Please Love Me, co-written by B.B. King and Jules Taub, was the opener of King’s 1956 debut album Singin’ The Blues. Trout calls King “the greatest blues man that ever lived.” Something tells me Trout’s sentiment may reflect the above noted long conversation with his hero.

One of my favorites on the album is Luther Johnson’s Woman Don’t Lie. The track appeared on a record titled Born In Georgia, released in March 2008. On his take Trout shares lead vocals with blues vocalist Sugaray Rayford. The result is just beautiful!

Appropriately, Trout also paid homage to John Mayall with Nature’s Disappearing, a tune from his 1970 album USA Union. “I was nervous about doing it because it’s by my mentor and surrogate father,” Trout noted. “John told me he’d read an article about ecology and pollution – he put the magazine down at the end and wrote that song in five minutes. It’s even more relevant today, with all the environmental regulations being thrown out and national parks being sold off to oil companies.” I dig the groove of this cover and think the Godfather of British Blues is smiling.

On Goin’ Down To The River Trout is joined by Robby Krieger, in whose Los Angeles studio the album was recorded. The tune was written by hill country blues singer and guitarist Mississippi Fred McDowell.  “There was something about the lyric,” noted Trout. “But the original is very different. I decided to take the verses that spoke to me, and then rearranged the song almost Muddy Waters-esque with that slide lick. Robby Krieger was coming in every day, listening and hanging out, so I said, ‘I’d love it if you played on this song’. So when I say ‘Play it, Robby’ – that’s Robby Krieger from The Doors. We just did that in the studio – boom, there you go.”

Survivor Blues has been produced by Trout’s long-time producer Eric Corne. It appears on Provogue Records/Mascot Label Group and is available in CD and vinyl formats, as well as on iTunes, Spotify and other digital music platforms.

Trout, who fortunately seems to be in good health, is supporting Survivor Blues with an extended tour that is set to kick off in Minneapolis on January 31st. Currently, the schedule lists around 50 dates, mostly in the U.S., and stretches all the way out to August. Not listed for some reason is a gig that shows up in Ticketmaster: April 8 at The Iridium in New York City. Blues is made to be experienced live, and this show is definitely on my radar screen.

Sources: Wikipedia, Walter Trout website, YouTube