Forty Below [Released date 19.05.14]
John Mayall probably makes light of the fact that he’s 80, reasoning that as long as he can continue to match his passion for the blues with the ability to play it, he will be recording more excellent albums like this.
He’s been the de facto finishing school for different generations of blues-rock guitarists, and in Rocky Athas he’s found another fine player as part of an impressive road tested line-up.
‘A Special Life’ is his first studio album for 5 years and broadens his musical palette by finding a workable equilibrium between 4 new self penned songs, a couple of judicious covers and 4 blues standards that includes the Jimmy Rogers favourite ‘That’s All Right’ and Eddie Taylor’s ‘Big Town Playboy’.
The latter two are great examples of the way Mayall brings real presence to bear on his band’s unhurried reading of two overly familiar songs. On ‘Playboy’, he revels on blues-harp and piano over a rock solid rhythm section.
C.J. Chenier – son of the ‘King of Zydeco’, Clifton Chenier – adds accordion and shares the vocals with Mayall on his dad’s ‘Why Did You Go Last Night’, and the uplifting swing of ‘I’ve Just Got To Know’. The former has a lovely lilting relaxed feel that anchors the album, but always leaves always plenty of room for the band to spark.
Rocky Athas does exactly that on ‘Speak Of The Devil’, a song taken from former Mayall guitarist Sonny Landreth’s 1992 ‘Outward Bound’ album. It also features one of Mayall’s best vocals and continues his ability to find and incorporate his band members songs into his set.
To that end, bassist Greg Rzab and guitarist Rocky Athas contribute ‘Like a Fool’, a riff-led smoking groove on which John’s up in the mix vocal and organ leads to another incisive, big toned solo from Rocky.
Drummer Jay Davenport also adds some lovely brush strokes on ‘That’s All Right’, which features Mayall on lyrical harp and a nasal vocal. Davenport also works up a shuffle rhythm on Mayall’s reflective narrative ‘World Gone Crazy’. The subtle blend of acoustic/electric guitar, piano and harp underpins some of his darkest lyrics which pessimistically warn us that: ‘Bombs in the wrong hands gonna blow our lives away.’
‘A Special Life’ has a lovely live in the studio feel. The album is overseen by co-producer Eric Corne, who facilitates the flow as the band confidently slips into a succession of grooves and stretches out impressively, but always as an integral part of the arrangement.
Albert King’s ‘Floodin’ In California’ comes embedded with Mayall’s cool organ lines and a slightly strained vocal. The subtly relaxed groove is taken up a notch by a trademark melodic solo from Rocky Athas.
The autobiographical title track comes with his mission statement of self sufficiency: ‘I got no plan to guide me, never plan to fade away’ and ‘I got a special freedom, looking through an open gate, a wide open freeway, I haven’t got the time to waste. I lead a special life, freedom is my middle name’, and he concludes: ‘if I get my self in trouble no one but myself to blame.’
It’s a beautifully paced track on which the words are primary and the gently paced accompaniment serves to emphasize lyrical meaning. ‘Heartache’ is another self penned effort and is a cool groove with a gentle, insistent swing laden beat, topped by a Clavinet and guitar solo.
The album finished ‘memory’, a slow extended drifting blues which disappointingly fades before a potential uplifting resolution. It’s another reflective piece with a relaxed piano solo, and is a typical example of Mayall’s use of the blues for his constant search for meaning, reflection and learning.
After a 58 year musical career you suspect he has little to learn, but as this album suggest that’s not going to stop him looking for new and imaginative ways of exploring his love of the blues. ****
Review by Pete Feenstra
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