The persistence of John Mayall

The first time I saw John Mayall had to be at Bunky’s in Madison, Wisconsin, in the late 1970s, and I’m pretty sure Harvey Mandel was with him. I don’t remember the last time but it had been a while, so long, I’m afraid, that I came dangerously close to embarrassing myself when I walked into City Winery Monday night (Mar. 21) and almost asked the old man at the merch table if Mayall might be hanging out after the show–said old man, of course, being Mayall himself, getting in a few pre-show CD sales.

Compounding the near embarrassment was the fact that even at 82, John Mayall looks pretty much the same as he did at Bunky’s, hair shorter and whiter perhaps, but that’s about it. He definitely sounds as good, even without Mandel; here he had a couple other excellent Chicago players in bassist Greg Rzab and drummer Jay Davenport, and ace Texas guitarist Rocky Athas. He also retained his unusual set-up of two keyboards–Hammond organ on his right, Roland electric piano on his left-lined next to each other horizontally in the middle of the stage as he stood behind them facing the audience, alternating between them when not playing guitar or harmonica, or in some cases harp with one hand, keyboard with the other.

Remarkably, too, Mayall still plays as good as he sounds on all instruments–spry on keys, crisp on guitar and harps. It made perfect sense that he played “Dancing Shoes,” from his 1999 album Padlock on the Blues (love that title!) that featured John Lee Hooker. Hooker, old bluesers remember, played with Canned Heat, and Mayall also performed his ode to that great blues-rock band, “The Bear,” from his 1968 album Blues from Laurel Canyon. He went even deeper into his catalog with the slow Chicago blues-styled “Have You Heard,” from his 1966 album Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton–Clapton, if you don’t know, being merely one of a myriad of future legends besides Mandel who came up through Mayall blues bands.

From 1967’s Crusade (which featured the likes of future Rolling Stone guitarist Mick Taylor and future Fleetwood Mac founding members Mick Fleetwood, Peter Green and John McVie) came the train song “Streamline,” and from 1970’s USA Union came the ecology-minded “Nature’s Disappearing,” which came out, incidentally, the same time that Chicago’s Siegel-Schwall blues-rock band took a similar tack on “Do You Remember.”

Mayall introduced “Big Town Playboy” as a cut from “one of those new albums” (2014’s A Special Life, to fill in the blank), and from his latest album Find a Way to Care–from late last year–were “Ain’t No Guarantees” and the Lonnie Brooks cover “I Want all My Money Back,” for which he switched from Hammond to Roland during the instrumental break.

But he was equally impressive in switching from the Chicago blues harmonica style to rhythmic country/folk blues chording–what he termed “chicka-chicka” during the lead-in to “Room to Move” on his 1969 album The Turning Point. And he in fact ended the set with “Room to Move”–now a true harmonica classic–after noting how people call it out every night, but that he doesn’t always do it, and that he wouldn’t do it the next night (the second of two at City Winery) since it would be an entirely different set.

“There are some oldies in the house tonight! I saw you come in the door!” he had said at one point, referring to those in the crowd who went all the way back with him–and no doubt me in particular. As I took one last look at him as he signed CDs at the merch table after the show I thought of my conversation with Jennifer Warnes from a few nights earlier.

“My generation of artists has been hit pretty hard,” she said. “For those of us who survive, there’s an urgency to keep on going. Look around at all our peers who have passed like Joe Cocker [her duet partner on the 1982 hit ‘Up Where We Belong’]. The antidote to the horribleness, if you know how to be a beautiful, decent, good and capable professional, is for God’s sakes, do it–and do it on a pedestal so that young people can see you! Write a sentence, paint a beautiful painting, cook a beautiful meal–it must be done. The most revolutionary thing you can do is persist in doing things well.”

I’m not sure there were a lot of youngsters at City Winery, but John Mayall’s band members are certainly younger, and I’ve actually got a ways to go before I catch up with him. I just hope I persist as well as he clearly has.