A Special Life
Forty Below Records, FBR 006 (2014)
By the end of this month, legendary British blues icon John Mayall will be 81 years old. Over the last 50 years he’s put out 60 or so albums. His bands have launched or legitimized the careers of many notable musicians, such as guitarists Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, and Robben Ford; bassists Jack Bruce and John McVie; drummers Aynsley Dunbar, Keef Hartley, Jon Hiseman, and Mick Fleetwood; and harmonica player Paul Butterfield. Clearly, the man has nothing left to prove. And yet he may also have nothing better to do, because he’s released another excellent album this year. If it’s not destined to be as influential as the best of his earlier work, A Special Life is nonetheless a strong collection of originals and covers, sung with conviction and played by a crack band of musicians barely old enough to be his grandchildren.
From top to bottom, the 11 songs on A Special Life are rendered consistently tuneful and energetic thanks to Mayall and his band. Rocky Athas occupies the historically significant lead guitar role in the band with clear confidence and exceptional Texas chops. On the Albert King song, “Floodin’ in California,” my favorite on the album, Athas constructs a terrific solo that starts out easygoing and melodic, is interrupted by a short organ solo by Mayall, then returns and builds in intensity. He cranks it to 11 on Sonny Landreth’s “Speak of the Devil” and does the aching slow burn on the late Jimmy McCracklin’s “I Just Got to Know.”
The rhythm section on the album is Greg Rzab (Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Black Crowes) on bass and potent drummer Jay Davenport, who counts as his influences Art Blakey, Billy Cobham, and Steve Gadd. Rzab contributed one composition to the album, a powerful blues lament called “Like a Fool.” Davenport is crisp and inventive, driving the band to higher heights and deeper depths.
Zydeco legend C.J. Chenier appears on two tracks, his accordion gracing the set’s opener, “Why Did You Go Last Night.” But ultimately, the cat who impresses most is none other than Mayall himself. Contributing four original compositions, singing every song, and playing piano, organ, harmonica, clavinet, and lead guitar, Mayall performs at a high level across the board. While giving his band ample opportunity to show why this incredible convener of talent has not lost his touch (or his ears), Mayall’s playing and soloing is tasteful and warm throughout, and his voice is full of vigor and character. With titles like “World Gone Crazy,” “A Special Life,” “Heartache,” and “Just a Memory,” his songs are the most personal on the album, and his beautiful piano solo on the latter, the album’s six-and-a-half-minute closer, speaks volumes after the lyrics have all been sung.
I saw Mayall perform live a couple of months ago and though he only performed three songs from this album, his pride in his band was evident and they covered several periods of his long career with reverence – but not too much, as this group had its own things to say on such classics as “Chicago Line,” “Parchman Farm,” and even Mayall’s harp showcase, “Room to Move.” One thing the concert and the new album had in common was the astounding fact of John Mayall’s enduring abilities; it’s not that he’s been rejuvenated, it’s more like he’s never aged. A Special Life was released in 2014, but it sounds like it could have come out at any time in Mayall’s career. And that’s about as high a praise as you can give a blues recording.