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

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What I’ve Been Listening To: Toronzo Cannon/The Chicago Way

Fourth album was the bus-driving Chicago blues man’s recording breakthrough

This is starting to feel a bit like Groundhog Day. Lately, I find myself spotting a listening recommendation from my music streaming service, and before too long blogging about it. But I just can’t help it, when music grabs me, I get excited!😀

Should I have heard of Toronzo Cannon before? Probably yes, based on the recognition this contemporary Chicago blues guitarist singer/songwriter has received. But just because I’m a music fan who likes to write about his passion doesn’t mean I’m a know-it-all expert – in fact, I’m far from that; and if anything, this only becomes more clear the deeper I get into music blogging. And that’s quite okay with me, since I like exploring stuff I don’t know.

According to the bio on his website, when Cannon isn’t touring, he’s driving a Chicago Transit Authority bus during the day and playing the blues at night, “using every vacation day and day off and working four ten-hour shifts a week.” I know it sounds a bit cliche, but where other than in America do you hear about such stories?

I suppose if Cannon continues to work as a bus driver, this means one of two things or possibly both: Driving the bus helps him write his lyrics. Notes Cannon’s bio: His songwriting is inspired by his deep, homegrown Chicago roots, his years observing the public while working as a city bus driver on the West Side, and his own battles and triumphs. And/or Cannon still depends on his additional income as a bus driver, since he isn’t making enough money with his music. If it’s the latter, maybe Cannon isn’t that well known after all beyond Chicago blues circles, which would make me feel a bit better that I had not heard of him before. Regardless, he sure as heck plays a groovy blues guitar and has a great soulful voice.

Toronzo Cannon

Cannon is a native Chicagoan. He was born there on February 14, 1968 and grew up on the South Side of the city. He bought his first guitar as a 22-year-old and apparently was a quick study. Interestingly, he focused on reggae in the beginning, but soon found the blues was his real calling.  “It was dormant in me,” he says in his bio. “But when I started playing the blues, I found my voice and the blues came pouring out.” The bio also reveals he was influenced by the likes of Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Hound Dog Taylor, B.B. King, Albert King, Freddie King, Al Green, Jimi Hendrix, J.B. Hutto, Lil’ Ed and others – surely a list of fine artists!

The Chicago Way, which appeared in 2016, is Cannon’s breakthrough album and the fourth album in his recording career that started in 2007. It’s his first release on Alligator and was co-produced by Cannon and the independent Chicago blues label’s president Bruce Iglauer. Cannon first had gained broader attention when he performed as one of the headliners at the Chicago Blues Festival in June 2015.

BTW, at the time The Chicago Way appeared, Cannon was 48 years old, in other words not exactly a young kid. Once again, this proves that age doesn’t have to be a hurdle when you got great talent like Cannon, though being younger in the brutal music business probably isn’t a disadvantage either! The record earned Cannon a nomination for a Blues Music Award in 2017 by the Blues Foundation as Album of the Year. While Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ ended up winning that award for their outstanding collaboration record TajMo, which I previously reviewed here, being nominated with these guys in the first place says a lot about Cannon. Time to get to some music!

The album opens with a great funky tune called The Pain Around Me. Like all of the other 10 tracks, the tune was written by Cannon. Except for one track, I couldn’t find any clips on YouTube of the studio recordings, so I’m relying on live footage. But in my opinion, that’s not a disadvantage – if there’s one music genre that’s made to be experienced live, it’s the blues!

Another great song is Walk It Off. It’s got some of that cool Muddy Waters Hoochie Coochie Man and Mannish Boy vibe. I also dig the classic blues lyrics. Here’s an excerpt: She didn’t mean it, that’s what she said/He was an old friend and she lost her head/I know my woman is nice and kind/but now we don’t know if the baby is his or mine/I got to walk it off/I got to walk it off/The feeling’s so strong I might do something wrong/So I’m gonna just walk it off. I just love the story-telling!

Fine Seasoned Woman has a cool driving jazzy groove. I also dig the Hammond-like organ sound.

Midlife Crisis is another great tune featuring some classic blues lyrics: Woke up this morning feeling kind of strange/Some of you men might feel the same/Looked in the mirror the other day/My chest hair was turning gray/My old friends are far too old/Don’t wanna hang with them no more/Went to the doctor say, “what’s wrong with me?”/He looked in my eyes, “There’s one thing I see”/You having a midlife crisis/You having a midlife crisis, Lord/Don’t know what to do because you ain’t 22/You having a midlife crisis.

The last song I’d like to call out is When Will You Tell Him About Me? I think Cannon’s soulful voice comes out particularly nice out on this slow blues. Here’s a clip of the studio version for a change.

So what did some of the music reviews have to say about the album? Usually, I don’t care much about the critics, but if they agree with me, hey, I don’t mind!

“Deep, contemporary Chicago blues…razor-sharp guitar and compelling, forceful singing” – The Chicago Tribune

“One of Chicago’s new greats”  — The Chicago Sun-Times

“Progressive as he is rootsy…Slow, simmering riffs and smoldering licks” – Chicago Reader

“Among the cream of the next generation of Chicago blues musicians” — Blues & Rhythm

Yep, I can support all of the above!

Looking at Cannon’s remaining 2018 schedule, his next gigs are in Poland and the Czech Republic in mid-October, followed by U.S. shows in San Diego (Oct 28), Cleveland (Nov 9) and Auburn Hills, Mich. (Nov 10 & 11). If any of these places would be closer to Central New Jersey, I’d seriously consider seeing him. But I suppose there’s always hope for 2019!

Sources: Wikipedia, Toronzo Cannon website, YouTube

Jimi Hendrix’s “Both Sides Of The Sky” Is Fully Released

Last album in trilogy of posthumous records

While I’m not a Jimi Hendrix expert, I don’t detect any no new revelations on Both Sides Of The Sky. In fact, if anything, I’d say it pretty much reflects what I’ve heard from Hendrix before. And that’s quite alright with me. After all, we’re talking about possibly the best rock guitarist who has ever walked the planet. So more of the same really means more of the same brilliance. In my book that’s not a reason to complain. Plus, I have to say, this album also provides a nice occasion to rediscover Hendrix.

The record, which was fully released yesterday (March 9), is the third in a trilogy of posthumous albums after Valleys Of Neptune (2010) and People, Hell and Angels (2013). It captures studio recordings Hendrix made between 1968 and 1970. All three albums were co-produced by Eddie Kramer, Hendrix’s go-to recording engineer for all records that appeared during his lifetime. The full release was preceded by three upfront singles: The Muddy Waters tune Mannish Boy, as well as the Hendrix compositions Hear My Train A Comin’ and Lover Man, which I covered in previous posts.

Here are clips of Mannish Boy, a nice take of the Waters classic, and Lover Man, which Hendrix modeled after B.B. King’s Rock Me Baby.

“He used the studio as a rehearsal place,” Kramer told NPR, commenting on the transitional period for Hendrix this collection from the vault captures. These recordings happened shortly after the final album by The Jimi Hendrix Experience Electric Ladyland had appeared and before he would record his last and only album with Band Of Gypsies at Fillmore East in January 1970. “Thank goodness that was happening because the tape was running, and he would bring in different musicians to try to figure out what he was gonna do with his musical direction.”

These different artists included Stephen Stills, Johnny Winter and saxophonist Lonnie Youngblood, who appear on different tracks of the album. The collaborations with Stills include his original tune $20 Fine and a great pre-Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young  recording of Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock. Winter joins Hendrix on Things I Used To Do, a great electric slide guitar blues. Youngblood provides strong vocals and a killer saxophone solo on Georgia Blues. On that tune, I also dig what sounds like a Hammond in the background – no idea who was playing it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find YouTube clips for any of these tunes, but the entire album is still available for free streaming on NPR here. It’s also on regular streaming platforms, including Apple Music/iTunes and Spotify.

Eddie Kramer

“Sometimes, a song would take him nine months to bring to completion, and a lot of these songs are that,” Kramer explained during the above NPR interview. “They are the takes prior to it being completed, which makes them very exciting.” The NPR segment further reported that according to Kramer, the Hendrix vault has pretty much been exhausted when it comes to unreleased studio recordings but still includes plenty of additional live material. Some 47 years after Hendrix’s death, one does indeed wonder how much unreleased material could possibly be left.

Asked whether working on Hendrix music is still meaningful to him, Kramer said, “Oh my goodness, yes, I love working on this stuff. I get so excited just putting the tapes up and hearing his voice. I wanna keep doing Jimi Hendrix for the rest of time.”

Sources: Wikipedia, NPR, YouTube

New Jimi Hendrix Album Exclusively Available At NPR For Streaming

Earlier this evening, I saw on Facebook that Both Sides Of The Sky, the forthcoming posthumous album by Jimi Hendrix, is now available exclusively at NPR for streaming. I’m currently listening to the collection of tracks recorded in 1968 and 1969, and definitely like what I’m hearing. The first three tunes, Mannish Boy, Lover Man and Hear My Train A Coming, already were officially released over the past six weeks. I previously wrote about them here, here and here.

Based on what I’ve heard so far, I think the lead to NPR’s accompanying review hits the nail on the head: “At this point, some 47 years after Jimi Hendrix’s death, it’s probably unrealistic to expect that a set of deep-vault studio tracks can expand the guitarist’s legacy in any meaningful way. This no doubt dismays the Hendrix obsessives, who pine for the long-whispered-about radical experiments they believe Hendrix squirreled away in some Electric Ladyland broom closet. For the rest of us, the arrival of any sort of Hendrix material, especially if it’s captured in the studio, is a chance to be awed, all over again and in surprising ways, by this human’s freakish powers of musical persuasion.”

Thus far, my favorite tunes include Mannish Boy, $20 Fine (a Stephen Stills tune with him on vocals), Things I Used To Do (nice slide guitar shredder with Johnny Winter), Georgia Blues (slow blues featuring Lonnie Youngblood on saxophone) and the Joni Mitchell classic Woodstock, another song featuring Stills. While the last track is “missing” the magic vocal harmonies of Crosby, Still, Nash & Young, I still dig this version, which features Hendrix jamming on bass and superb organ work.

Both Sides Of The Sky is set for release on March 9.

Sources: Tom Moon, NPR: First Listen: Jimi Hendrix, ‘Both Sides Of The Sky’

Clips & Pix: Jimi Hendrix/Mannish Boy

The above version of Mannish Boy is from an upcoming Jimi Hendrix album called Both Sides Of The Sky, which will appear on March 9. I love the uptempo and funky take of the blues classic credited to Muddy Waters, Mel London and Bo Diddley.

The cool thing is Both Sides Of The Sky is not some ordinary sampler but a compilation of previously unreleased material from Hendrix’s vaults. According to a Rolling Stone story, since the mid-nineties, Hendrix’s key recording engineer Eddie Kramer has worked with the guitar wizard’s estate to unearth previously unreleased tracks.

In addition to Mannish Boy, the 13 studio tracks Hendrix recorded between 1968 and 1970 include intriguing collaborations with Johnny Winter, Stephen Stills and Lonnie Youngblood. This album is the third and last in a trilogy of such unearthed gems. The previous two are Valleys Of Neptune (2010) and People, Hell and Angeles (2013).

Based on how great Mannish Boy sounds, it appears Kramer who was a recording engineer for every Jimi Hendrix album during the guitarist’s lifetime did an outstanding job. He co-produced the new record with John McDermott and Janie Hendrix, Jimi’s sister who also heads Experience Hendrix, the company that manages the estate. Looking forward to that one!

Sources: Rolling Stone, Jimi Hendrix website, YouTube