John Mayall – Tough – Eagle ER201632, 54:49 ***:
(John Mayall – vocals, piano, organ, harmonica, 12- & 6-string guitar; Rocky Athas – guitar; Greg Rzab – bass; Tom Canning – piano, organ, backing vocals; Jay Davenport – drums; Maggie Mayall – backing vocals)
British blues legend John Mayall is familiar – or certainly should be – to anyone who has listened to blues music. Mayall’s 50+ year career has resulted in nearly 60 albums (which does not include numerous compilations and collections) and a constantly rotating group that has been a who’s who of blues and rock practitioners. Artists who have moved through the Bluesbreakers and later Mayall bands include Eric Clapton, Clapton’s fellow Cream compatriot Jack Bruce, former Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor, Fleetwood Mac founders Mick Fleetwood, John McVie and Peter Green, Free’s Andy Fraser and guitarists Coco Montoya and Walter Trout.
Mayall is now in his mid-70s but on listening to his latest sojourn, Tough, its evident that a few things have stayed consistent throughout Mayall’s multi-decade musical journey. One: Mayall believes the blues is a vital form of expression and a living experience. Two: Mayall continues his long history of working with and/or developing notable blues musicians. Three: his brand of blues, while not progressive, does give the people what they want.
On this 11-track outing, Mayall has formed a sharp-edged quintet. Texas guitar icon Rocky Athas has been a big draw on the blues circuit since the ’70s and worked alongside Queen’s Brian May, Stevie Ray Vaughan and has been a member of southern boogie aces Black Oak Arkansas. Chicago-based bassist Greg Rzab has previously played with Mayall, has backed Buddy Guy and appeared with or recorded with The Black Crowes and others. Rzab, in turn, recommended fellow Windy City drummer Jay Davenport, who has gigged with various northern blues colleagues. Keyboardist Tom Canning is a long-time Bluesbreakers alum and has done sessions with too many artists to list here. Together, this is one convincing blues-rock assemblage.
Mayall and his newest gathering galvanize through songs that look at fate, regret, the struggle of life and love, and finally redemption. Thematically its typical blues fare, from pain to hope, and Mayall manages to bring out the best on what could have been a set of cliched blues tropes.
While Mayall only wrote 3 compositions, they are top notch pieces. His autobiographical "Slow Train to Nowhere" is a heartfelt examination of the futility of hard partying and drinking at every bar in town, highlighted by Athas’ piercing guitar lines and a keyboard duet between Mayall and Canning. The out-and-out rocker "That Good Old Rockin’ Blues" unapologetically praises upbeat electric blues and old-fashioned rock and roll as it discards rap, modern rock and other contemporary genres, with strong contributions coming from Mayall’s Southside Chicago-styled harmonica, Athas’ riffing six-string and a bouncing groove provided by Davenport and Rzab. Mayall’s most effective conception, though, is the album’s lengthiest cut, the low-down slow blues stimulator "Tough Times Ahead," a commentary on the debilitated economy, and the loss of jobs and homes, but which is nevertheless cloaked with an underlying optimism. Athas again supplies unadorned but potent guitar solos.
Mayall gets funky on "Just What You’re Looking For," a Peter Harper mediation on how drugs, money and other temptations can lead toward self-deception and misguided dependence. While the others keep a loose groove, Canning and Mayall wield dueling Hammond B-3 organs. Another winner is Curtis Salgado’s closer, "The Sum of Something," an easy-loping, 12-bar shuffle that has a life-affirming naturalness brought alive via Athas’ guitar, rollicking drums, jazzy organ and a trace of juke joint piano.
The weakest portion of Mayall’s releases is his voice, which often cannot carry the emotive weight of the lyrics and rarely match his and other players’ instrumental prowess. Mayall sings satisfactorily throughout Tough, but his vocals lack a prominent bite or a passionate pulse. As others have noted, Mayall is no Robert Johnson or Otis Rush. On Tough, Mayall does not re-invent the music that has influenced him, but ultimately this approximately hour-long effort showcases an excellent band that furnishes just the sort of accustomed electric blues-rock that fans can enjoy.
1. Nothing to Do with Love
2. Just What You’re Looking For
3. Playing with a Losing Hand
4. An Eye for an Eye
5. How Far Down
6. Train to my Heart
7. Slow Train to Nowhere
8. Numbers Down
9. That Good Old Rockin’ Blues
10. Tough Times Ahead
11. The Sum of Something
— Doug Simpson