Forty Below [Release date 28.01.22]
John Mayall’s 5th album for his producer Eric Corne’s Forty Below label may or may not be his 43rd in all, but it’s surprisingly good.
Surprising, because despite 6 guests and 3 covers it’s still very much a document of the veteran blues man’s own prowess, from his songwriting, organ and harp playing, to his gritty vocal phrasing and an uncanny ability to pick guests for particular songs.
Above all, he retains the ability to draw us into a song with arrangements that percolate, groove, occasionally sparkle and always beguile.
This is particularly so on the single release of Bobby Rush’s ‘I’m As Good As Gone’, which is full of strong band interplay and guitarist Buddy Miller’s growling, dirt- sounding solo which brings a moody gravitas to the track.
Mayall is at his best when he revisits his own Laurel Canyon sound on ‘Deep Blue Sea’ (originally from his 1970 ‘USA Union’ album). He updates Sugarcane Harris’s electric violin contribution with the hugely impressive Scarlet Rivera. And she dominates from the intro on a song given extra heft by a full rhythm section.
She also stars on ‘Got To Find A Better Way’, linking impressively with Mayall’s electric piano. Her solo is both deeply wrought and uplifting and gives the album as a whole a new dimension.
And when Mayall relies solely on his core band members, they step up to the plate on the sublime title track with an autobiographical feel: “Got a home in California and the sun is shining down.”
He further adds the defiant mission statement: “It’s been a long, long journey and I ain’t got time to quit.”
The beautifully crafted song features Mayall on organ and some intricate guitar work by his current Texan guitarist Carolyn Wonderland.
This is an album that flows purposefully like a slow river that is in no hurry to reach its destination. It’s also coloured by Mayall’s intuitive phrasing, his story telling ability and his willingness let a song breathe and focus on the grooves.
Eric Corne’s unobtrusive production nails the dynamics and polishes the solos to emphasize plenty of contrast, or as Mayall himself suggests “something unique.”
This is the case on the walking bass shuffle of ‘One Special Lady’ on which Jake Shimabukuro’s sharp toned ukulele cuts a swathe though Mayall’s layered organ and the mellifluous rhythm section of Greg Rzab, drummer Jay Davenport.
The subtle thread of dynamics at the core of the album continues with Melvin Taylor’s Chicago tinged aggressive lines on the stop-time shuffle “Hungry & Ready’ and his stinging attack on Roosevelt Sykes’s ‘Driving Wheel’.
By contrast, Marcus King offers a warm tone break well suited to the funky horn driven ‘Can’t Take No More’, while Mike Campbell dominates the funky Bernard Allison cover ‘Thrills & Chills’, though in truth it’s a reverential rather than inspired version.
‘The Sun is Shining Down’ is an updated snapshot of John Mayall’s continuing blues journey. He may have just announced his retirement from the road, but at 88 he’s still writing and crafting hand made blues of the highest order. ****
Review by Pete Feenstra
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NEAR DUSK The Way It Goes (Iron Head Records)
IN SEARCH OF SUN Make Me Crazy (indie)
WALLNER VAIN Deceive Her (indie)
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MARATON Non-Euclidean Heart (Indie Recordings)
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12:00-13:00 FOZZY Boombox (Mascot)
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