Review: Octogenarian John Mayall’s Blues Keeps Shining Down

John Mayall
The Sun is Shining Down
(Forty Below Records)
3 1/2 out of 5 stars

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It’s been a long, long journey/And I ain’t got time to quit/Things are going so good so far/Not bad for some ole Brit, sings blues legend John Mayall on the title track of his new album. It provides a positive perspective on a career few have a chance to follow this late in life.

Retirement? The word’s not in Mayall’s vocabulary. He’s a lifer.

The Godfather of British Blues, now pushing 90, hasn’t stopped releasing music or touring since his mid-60s debut when he was already an elder statesman at 30. Such seminal stars as Eric Clapton, Mick Fleetwood, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Coco Montoya, and many others have been members of his revolving door band throughout the decades.

With well over 50 albums to his name, he’s slowing down on live shows (recently swearing off road work), but as this sturdy set proves, the legendary bluesman remains feisty as ever in the studio. It’s his fifth release since 2015 and while there are no surprises or twists, Mayall turns in a typically competent, occasionally fiery collection of tough Chicago-styled blues.

Six of 10 tracks are originals (“Deep Blue Sea,” is an older tune refreshed here) and, as has been a trend, guests are invited to join his tight three-piece to add star power and changes in sound. From Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell tearing into Bernard Allison’s mid-tempo “Chills and Thrills” to Buddy Miller providing the pumping baritone vibrato on Bobby Rush’s “I’m as Good as Gone” and even young ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro working subtle plugged in licks on a Mayall original shuffle, the infusion of players keeps the vibe crackling, even if these tunes don’t stray far from standard blues tropes.

Mayall never had a commanding voice and his thin vocals aren’t getting any sturdier with age. But, like BB King who also toured until his late 80s, he delivers these songs with emotion and joy that belies the many candles on his birthday cake. Inviting in younger musicians such as the aforementioned Shimabukuru and guitarist Marcus King on the horn enhanced Electric Flag styled “Can’t Take No More” speaks volumes for Mayall trying to stay fresh as the years go passing by.

The octogenarian isn’t phoning it in either. He blows fiery harmonica on Tinsley Ellis’ “A Quitter Never Wins” and turns in a spirited vocal performance on the classic “Driving Wheel,” enhanced by more horns. Fiddler Scarlet Rivera, best known for her work supporting Bob Dylan on Desire, appears for two tracks that benefit from the raw country vibe she brings.    

There aren’t many musicians of Mayall’s advanced years still recording new music and fewer still sounding this energetic and dynamic. It’s not his finest work, but fans won’t come away disappointed either.

Everyone should be this vibrant and animated in their ninth decade.

Hal Horowitz          

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