Eighty-two is not an age when most musicians feel like trying something completely new.
Not John Mayall. Earlier this spring, his guitarist couldn’t make it to a gig. So for the first time in a career that spans more than half a century, the legendary British bluesman led his band through a full show as a trio. “I’d never even thought about it until I did it,” he said in a recent call from his home in Los Angeles. “My god, looking back, I can’t remember any instance where I’ve gone any smaller than a quartet.” Now, though, it’s all he wants to do. When Mayall hits the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater on Thursday (click here for details), he’ll be joined by bassist Greg Rzab, drummer Jay Davenport, and no one else.
“They’re a really special rhythm section,” Mayall said. “We’ve been together many, many years, and it’s just the interplay and the way we work together that makes it all very cohesive.”
High praise from a man who’s best known as one of the blues’ foremost pack rats of talent. Over the years, his band the Bluesbreakers has included such luminaries as Eric Clapton, Walter Trout, Cream’s Jack Bruce, Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green and the Rolling Stones’ Mick Taylor.
Mayall has retired his Bluesbreakers brand, but he’s still keeping busy. In May, he released Live in ’67, Vol. 2, a Bluesbreakers bootleg featuring Fleetwood Mac’s Green, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood. He’s got another album, Talk About That, featuring contributions from Joe Walsh, coming in 2017. And he has no plans to stop touring Europe and America.
You turn 83 in November. That’s not an age when most people would feel inclined to try something new and different.
I know. I’m just lucky enough to have good health and energy, so as long as I’ve got that, I don’t see any slowing-down process. Music is a very vital art form, and it’s very invigorating to play with the right people. I’m sure we’ve got the right people.
Does the reinvention of the band as a trio shape how your songs are going to sound live?
I don’t really know. My setlist is a different setlist every night. We’ve got so much material to choose from other the vast catalog of my career, so it goes from everything from The Beano Album right up to date. It’s a different setlist every night, so we have a lot of fun out of it.
How involved are you in your archive releases, like the Live in ’67 series? Do you have an archivist sifting through your work?
No, I do it myself. I’ve got battered cassettes, and I don’t really have a large library of things. There’s no hoards of tapes knocking around in studios and things like that to chose from. Occasionally I just want to put out something that’s a little bit archival.
Why do those 50-year-old recordings still resonate with people?
I think they were very special to begin with, but the fact that they laid hidden for all these decades has made it even more amazing and enticing to people. Especially considering the fame of Fleetwood Mac — you’ve got the actual foundation of Fleetwood Mac, which was my band. The music is so amazing, and also, Peter Green is not what he used to be, and you’ve got him playing in 1967 at his very peak.
Does he still play live at all?
I don’t really know. He’s somewhat reclusive, as far as I know. And he’s not what he was. He’s a damaged soul.
Back then, you were much closer to the origins of blues music. A lot of the greats were still active and walking among us.
Does the blues mean something different now than it did back then?
I don’t think so. I think you’re carrying on a tradition, and you’re just doing what feels natural to you. It’s the way you express yourself through the music, and you really have no control over the choice of that. It’s something that you have to get out as you get up on stage to make music. It’s what comes out, and it has to come out.
It seems silly to suggest that the blues are in danger of dying out; I’m sure that’s something you’ve heard for the past 50 years.
Yeah, it keeps cropping up, doesn’t it?
But it’s also not totally a young man’s game, is it? Do you see it evolving in the decades to come? Or do you think it’ll continue to be about preserving and upholding traditions?
Oh, definitely, I think they are. There are so many younger artists. Take Joe Bonamassa for instance. There’s always people coming up that love the blues, and they’ve been influenced by the people who came before them. They want to carry it on because it’s a very vital music, and it’s about real stuff. No, it’ll never die out.
Were you very close to B.B. King before he passed away last year?
Yeah, we were always on parallel paths. We ran into each other and we did concerts together. I opened up for him with my band, and we were very close in the musicians’ world. He was a really nice guy, very accommodating.
What about Buddy Guy? When’s the last time you got on stage with him?
It’s been a while. It’s usually in these European festivals where it’ll happen like that. But it’s probably been about four years. Time flies so fast. It seems like yesterday, but really, when you look at it, it’s probably quite a long time.
With B.B. last year, and then folks like David Bowie and Merle Haggard and Prince, we’ve had a lot of “end of an era” passings over the last couple of years. Do you feel that, as a contemporary of all these artists?
I do notice it going on. And I just hope I’m not one of them. I’ve got too much work to do.
-- Jay Cridlin