Bluesman John Mayall is perhaps best known for his ear for talent. Legendary guitarists Eric Clapton, Peter Green, and Mick Taylor, all passed through his bands, not to mention Cream bassist Jack Bruce and the Fleetwood Mac rhythm section. Plus more modern guitar marvels like Harvey Mandel and Coco Montoya. But Mayall is more than just a great hiring manager. He’s also a talented singer and harmonica/keyboard player. Nobody Told Me, his latest album, leaves little doubt that the 85-year-old Englishman still has plenty of blues left in his tank.
Mayall also understands his audience and how he’s perceived. So Nobody Told Me features a revolving cast of guitarists on every track (with rhythm guitar courtesy of Billy Watts). Mayall works with blues guitarists Joe Bonamassa, Larry McCray, and Carolyn Wonderland, as well as less-expected choices, like Rush’s Alex Lifeson, Steven Van Zandt of Sopranos/Bruce Springsteen/Lilyhammer fame, and Todd Rundgren, who’s done everything and performed with everyone. But Mayall goes a step further and even includes the key of each song in the album credits, so guitar players can jam along. The disparate crew of guitarists gives the album a fun energy, like a roast with blues licks instead of insults.
Fun doesn’t mean loose, though. Mayall still runs a tight ship. His band is crisp—especially bassist Greg Rzab who drives a lot of the songs, providing a solid foundation both for the guest guitarists and for Mayall’s piano and organ. And Mayall’s voice sounds amazing. I went back and listened to 1966’s classic Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton and while his range now isn’t what it was over 50 years ago, his voice still has power and depth. But more importantly, Mayall’s voice still has it soulfulness. He’s not just singing the songs, he’s also feeling them.
In many ways, the most engaging songs on the albums are the ones featuring the more surprising guests. Lifeson joins Mayall for “Evil and Here to Stay,” a Jeff Healey tune. Healey’s original was a victim of the overproduction of the time, but Mayall taps into its essence, unlocking the classic blues song Healey lost to a distractingly big, fake drum sound. Lifeson, who isn’t known for his blues chops, has a huge tone and slides right into the song, mostly parachuting in for the solo while Mayall’s piano and harmonica provide the structure of the track.
Van Zandt’s track, “It’s So Tough,” a Mayall original, is also a pleasant surprise. Where many of Van Zandt’s guitar-playing colleagues on the album go for the throat, perhaps trying to impress the legendary Mayall, Van Zandt’s track is driven by emotion. Van Zandt is known for his love of garage rock and on this track, you can imagine the teenage Van Zandt jamming out to a tune just like this in his parents’ garage. It’s charming in its purity and is one of the album’s best tracks.
Mayall recorded this album over nine days. This probably meant the lead guitarists would come in and lay down their tracks fairly quickly. The performances are great, but they’re not necessarily integrated into the DNA of the song, though. Much like Mayall is encouraging home guitarists to jam along by unveiling the key of each song, it can sometimes feel like the guitarists are similarly—but much more deliberately and proficiently—jamming along. Mayall also doesn’t sing with any of his guitarists. That’s a shame as guitarists like McCray and Wonderland also have amazing voices. But even with those minor details, this is a fun and impressive album showing you don’t have to be a young American to make a killer blues rock album.