Blues Hall of Famer, the legendary John Mayall, AKA “The Godfather of British Blues, has announced that he has stopped touring at the young age of 88 but his latest project, The Sun Is Shining Down, reveals a belying vitality. In fact, with well over forty albums in his storied career, this sits among a handful of his best. Some may argue that much of that credit goes to the stellar cast of guests who appear, and while that is certainly not a deterrent, Mayall’s vocals and bright keyboards resonate with the same kind of passion they did when he was a prime shaker and mover in the British blues explosion over six decades ago.
Mayall has long been one of the better songwriters and innovators in blues and this album while being straightforward, mostly guitar-driven musically, does have five Mayall originals together with five covers. And his innovative bent appears through featuring instruments not often used in the idiom, such as violin, baritone tremolo guitar, and Hawaiian ukulele. There are eight featured artists across these ten tracks – as if Mayall is throwing a celebration, knowing that he may not have many studio opportunities left. The album title even speaks to this commemorative tone and inspirational atmosphere with all wanting to ‘give back.’
The album is in a similar vein to his 2019 Nobody Told Me, which featured guest guitarists Todd Rundgren, Little Steven Van Zandt, Alex Lifeson, Joe Bonamassa, Larry McCray, and Carolyn Wonderland. Yet, this one resonates far more deeply. The guest lineup here includes guitarists – The Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell, emerging roots rocker Marcus King, Americana stalwart Buddy Miller, Chicago blues guitar mainstay Melvin Taylor, Mayall’s most recent lead guitarist, charismatic Carolyn Wonderland who plays lead on the title track and rhythm guitar on seven others. Scarlet Rivera of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review contributes violin and Jake Shimabukuro adds the Hawaiian electric ukulele. Also on hand is Mayall’s longtime rhythm section of Greg Rzab on bass guitar and Jay Davenport on drums. Mayall plays his customary array of keyboards and harmonica and is the lead vocalist throughout. The three-piece horn section of saxophonist Ron Dziubla, trumpeter Mark Pender, and trombonist Richard A. Rosenberg add to the fiery sound on select tracks while label owner Eric Corne and Billy Watts play rhythm guitar when Wonderland sits out. If you are thinking that this list of guests has a decidedly West Coast ring to it, keep in mind that Mayall has made his home in Los Angeles since the early ‘70s (remember Blues from Laurel Canyon with Mick Taylor?)
Two singles you may have heard are the stomping Bernard Allison’s “Chills and Thrills,” featuring Mike Campbell with a blistering electric lead, and “I’m As Good As Gone,” written by fellow octogenarian and two-time Grammy winner Bobby Rush, featuring Buddy Miller’s singular baritone tremolo guitar set against Mayall’s whirling B3. Chicago secret weapon blues guitarist Melvin Taylor is the soloist on the opening Mayall original, “Hungry and Ready” and delivers an especially searing turn on the Chicago blues chestnut, pianist Roosevelt Sykes’ “Driving Wheel,” where Mayall plays a vibrant B3 in accompaniment rather than assuming Sykes’ piano parts.
Other guest spots feature the incendiary guitar of Marcus King on Mayall’s “Can’t Take No More,” and Shimabukuro’s remarkable ukulele turn on Mayall’s organ-fueled “One Special Lady.” Mayall reserves Tinsley Ellis’ “A Quitter Never Wins” for his core band, and the slow-burner has perhaps his best vocal lead and an extensive harmonica solo. Scarlet Rivera colors two Mayall originals, “Got to Find a Better Way” and the enlivened update of Mayall’s first-decade classic, “Deep Blue Sea.” To these ears though, one of the most emotive solo belongs to Wonderland in the closing title track.
While these songs follow conventional blues structures, mixing the familiar with the new, the cover interpretations generally reflect a fresh approach, and the instrumental touches offer colors and textures not found on many blues efforts. Then again, this is not surprising given Mayall’s restless, progressive nature. He’s the same artist who brought us a drummer-less acoustic blues lineup during his famous Mark-Almond period and jazz-blues fusion, to name just a couple of his forward-thinking formats. Whether borrowed or new, it’s all blues.