On March 19, legendary British bluesman John Mayall made a return visit to Budapest’s Akvárium Klub, an absolute treat for blues lovers or, indeed, anyone who loves hearing world-class musicians play live. He spoke to the BBJ by phone ahead of the gig.
The current tour celebrates Mayall’s 85 years on this planet, most of which have been spent playing and championing the blues.
Born in the United Kingdom to a guitarist and jazz aficionado father, Mayall immersed himself in the blues from an early age and taught himself to play piano, guitar and harmonica. In 1963, after training as a graphic designer, he gave up the day job, moved to London and became a professional bluesman.
The Bluesbreakers, the band Mayall founded, would go on to be phenomenally influential in the blues scene and, because of this, the wider world of 1960s and ’70s rock and roll. Legendary guitarists Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor – later to join the Rolling Stones – and Peter Green all played with Mayall.
When Green left The Bluesbreakers, he took drummer Mick Fleetwood and bass player John McVie with him and formed Fleetwood Mac. In an elegant twist of fate, Mayall recorded his latest album, “Nobody Told Me”, on the same gear Fleetwood Mac used to record parts of their classic “Rumors”.
Mayall’s genius for surrounding himself with great players hasn’t deserted him. But, thanks to his position as an elder statesman of the blues, he doesn’t have to seek out guitar gods. They come to him.
“Nobody Told Me” features Joe Bonamassa, Todd Rundgren, Little Steven Van Zandt – best known for his work with Bruce Springsteen – and Alex Lifeson of Rush. Also playing up a storm is the frankly incredible Carolyn Wonderland, a blues player out of Texas who will be with Mayall when he plays in Budapest.
When I caught up with Mayall for a chat via phone recently, he was at his home in California. Despite having lived there for what must be at least 50 years, Mayall’s northern English accent is as strong as ever.
While researching this piece – basically, listening to lots of John Mayall albums on Spotify – I came across an album called “Behind the Iron Curtain”, recorded live in 1985 in Szeged. I began by asking Mayall if he’d been back to Hungary.
“We probably have,” he said. “We’re always on the move.” This kind of set the tone for the interview. Mayall was perfectly friendly but very to the point. [Editor’s note: Mayall has, indeed, returned to Hungary on at least three occasions.]
I told Mayall I was listening to the new album and enjoying it. It’s a strong collection of impeccably played blues and Mayall is in great voice. I wondered if he had an agenda with regard to making albums.
“It takes care of itself really,” he told me. “I like to document the progress we’re making year by year. It’s what I’ve always done.”
I was surprised by the line-up of guitarists on the album, I said. “I was surprised too,” Mayall replied. “I wouldn’t have thought about them unless they volunteered their services. It was great for me to see the blues side of their playing. And they chose me. I didn’t choose them. Which is very flattering.”
Was it unnerving playing with such great players? “We just get together and see if it works out. If it resonates, we’ll record it. When the music comes naturally, it only ever takes two or three takes to get down. Usually the first take is the one we keep.”
Did Mayall practice? “I never practice. The only time I ever play is when I’m with the band. When I finish a tour, I go home and never touch an instrument. That’s the way it’s always been.”
The title track of the album, “Nobody Told Me”, is a slow blues number on which Wonderland plays lovely guitar. Its opening line is “Nobody told me that a life could move so fast.” I was curious to know whether Mayall had ever subscribed to the Mick Jagger school of thought that says: I won’t be doing this when I’m 40, 50, 60 etc.
“I don’t think that far ahead,” he said. “You just enjoy what you’re doing, and hope people will like it. You can never tell what’s going to happen next, but one thing leads to another. A long time ago, I thought that it would be great to have a hit record that would introduce my music to a whole lot more people. It never did happen, but I’ve always had a faithful following. Enough to keep me in business.”
What about the blues itself, was Mayall surprised it was still so popular? “I’m just very glad that it is. Nobody would have forecast that this would have been the case back in the 1930s and ’40s but it’s become part of our heritage. I would never have guessed that I could make a career out of the blues because there was no interest at that time. That’s the reason I didn’t start playing professionally until I was 30. But I’ve always played what I feel, and it’s worked out very well for me.”
The press release I received from Mayall’s management described him as “a seemingly ageless road dog, who famously takes no days off and carries his own gear on tour”.
“If I didn’t enjoy touring, I wouldn’t do it,” Mayall told me. “I have to express myself and I enjoy sharing that with the people. It’s a different set list every night. We don’t rehearse.”
Was that ever unnerving? “Not at all. I like playing with people, one player sparking off another. That’s where the excitement comes in.”