Rendered so honestly and fervently as it is, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers’ A Hard Road (released 2/17/67) is not appreciably different than the seminal album that preceded it in 1966 (colloquially known as ‘The Beano Album‘ based on its cover photo). But that is ever so high a compliment when taking into account the turbulent changes wrought in the band’s lineup in a roughly two-year interim: with scarcely a hint of his departure on two occasions, (at least accordingly to the bandleader in his autobiography Blues From Laurel Canyon My Life As A Bluesman), guitarist Eric Clapton left the group twice to be replaced by Peter Green. There’s hardly a better example of ‘The Godfather of British Blues” skills as a bandleader that he navigated such tumult while continuing to perform and record regularly.
The man who would eventually form Fleetwood Mac enacted both transitions in and out of the band with a facile grace and versatility. Green’s solos evince a more crisp and pointed sound than his predecessor’s on, for instance, the title song (notably bereft of self-pity as the author celebrates his vocation later on “Hit The Highway”). And he takes no little pride or shortage of gusto in his rhythm playing in tracks like “It’s Over:” his chording meshes seamlessly with the stout bass playing of John McVie and the drumming of Aynsley Dunbar.
Peter Green also takes over the lead vocals on two cuts here. His straightforward singing of “You Don’t Love Me” points up how it’s not arranged much differently from the version by the Allman Brothers’ two years later, while “The Same Way” further bespeaks the man’s confidence in his singing, an attribute Slowhand himself has admitted was not his strong suit at the time. Green also plays harmonica on A Hard Road (in tandem with Mayall on “Leaping Christine”?), the Bluesbreakers thereby expanding their versatile use of studio recording technique under the aegis of producer Mike Vernon.
The fourteen tracks posit an array of blues styles in fairly quick succession. Most of these tunes reside within a two-minute range of playing time, like “” Hit The Highway” and “Top of the Hill,” while “There’s Always Work” is just over ninety seconds. And with instrumentals such as “The Stumble” imbuing the album with as much variety as the horns on three numbers, including “Another Kinda Love”–like more than half the songs an original of Mayall’s–this LP is the work of practiced, adventurous professionals, deeply devoted to a genre they are working ever so confidently to expand.
After having been extended an open invitation to return to the fold by the bandleader, the man once likened to ‘God’ for his preternatural skill on guitar would depart the Bluesbreakers fold once and for all (almost as abruptly as he had left and come back), to form Cream with Jack Bruce (also an alumnus of Mayall’s) and Ginger Baker. Peter Green thus returned, but after recording some forty tracks, from which derives this watershed album, he joined forces with the aforementioned McVie and drummer Mick Fleetwood (who plays on “Double Trouble” from CD two of an Expanded Edition of this album) and go on to form the legendary band that would metamorphose so dramatically over more than fifty years: “The Super Natural,” in fact, sounds like an outline of his “Black Magic Woman” for that band.
With discerning hindsight of over a half-century, A Hard Road may rightly be seen as every bit as much of a seminal release in the field as that legitimately famous album it followed. In fact, it may even be deemed superior, if for no other reason than it sounds like a logical step in the natural evolution of a groundbreaking band.