Artist Lookback – John Mayall’s Blues Breakers: The Guitar Hero Trilogy 1966-1967

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Ah, the blues. I must admit, when it comes to classic rock, my first love was and always will be the Rolling Stones. I picked up ‘Some Girls,’ my first album ever and it was the beginning of a life long obsession. The Rolling Stones, in many ways, were a gateway drug for me into the broad array of rock music in the world. The Stones led me to Zeppelin, then to the Beatles, Black Sabbath and beyond. It wasn’t long before I was in the basement of seedy used record stores looking for out of print Faces albums or Springsteen bootlegs. I made my friend Doug go to a used record store in a strip mall in Dallas after he’d just broken up with a girlfriend so I could look for the out of print Buckingham Nicks LP… a trip he still hasn’t forgiven me for, although it may be his unpleasant memories of that trip unrelated to “Buckingham Nicks.” I wasn’t musically sophisticated enough to understand what the root of my musical infatuation was. I didn’t understand that the common thread that links all the music I love is the blues.

By the 1960’s the blues was an underground music in the United States, segregated like so much was, in the black community. It took some groovy English youth to rediscover and reawaken interest in the blues in the States. Much of what came out of the British Invasion was what is now described as “blues rock.” There were so many key figures, people you don’t hear about any more, that were critical to that early blues rock movement. ¬†Alexis Korner was a guy that was at the center of a lot of it and he helped fan the flame of blues in London. If time travel is ever invented, you’ll know where to find me… 60s swinging London.

Another name that I don’t hear much any more is John Mayall, leader of the intrepid Blues Breakers. I posted about these British blues rock pioneer’s American cousins, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, who were also 60s era masters of the blues, a few months ago. In the comment section, Moulty58 (whose blog, The Future Is Past is phenomenal, check it out) mentioned Mayall and the Blues Breakers. In the ensuing conversation he mentioned the album Mayall did with Peter Green, ‘A Hard Road.’ The only Mayall & the Bluesbreaker album I’d ever heard or heard of was the masterpiece, “Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton.” Could I have missed something? As a musical spelunker, I pride myself on owning anything I consider critical in music. Oh sure, I have some blindspots, like say, jazz, but I own most the LPs in the “Must Have” canon. I’m that weird guy who buys the live solo Gregg Allman albums or the solo Lowell George of Little Feat LP… Maybe I have a problem, but as Van Morrison sang, “it’s too late to stop now.” Perhaps I needed to give Mayall’s catalog another look.

In retrospect, John Mayall’s Blues Breakers could be looked at more as a musical collective than a band. They changed personnel more often than Yes, and that’s saying something. Almost every band has a connection to the Blues Breakers. Just on bass guitar alone, John McVie, Jack Bruce and Andy Fraser of Free fame all played with them. On drums, amongst a large number of people, Mick Fleetwood and Aynsley Dunbar both played with Mayall. I think Dunbar played in every band ever… I think he was even in Journey for a while. Mayall actually sang, played keyboards (mostly piano), guitar and harmonica. The thing about the Blues Breakers that is probably the most remarkable is the guitar talent that went through this band. Not only did Eric Clapton play with them but so did Peter Green (Fleetwood Mac), and a very young Mick Taylor (The Rolling Stones). Those are just the big names. Rick Vito (Fleetwood Mac) and Jimmy McCulloch (Wings) also played with the Blues Breakers, just to name a few. Paul Butterfield even shows up playing harmonica on one album. It’s quite an impressive roster. It seems if you were a British rock band in the 70’s and needed a player, you looked no further than the Blues Breakers. It was like a British Prep school for guitarists.

I quickly began an investigation of the Blues Breaker’s catalog and found that I had indeed missed a couple of essential LPs, beyond “With Eric Clapton.” There are really three albums that I consider “essential” for blues or blues rock fans. As you might guess, it’s the three albums featuring the three greatest of the Blues Breaker’s guitarists. With all due respect to fans of “Blues From Laurel Canyon,” which does feature Mick Taylor, I consider that a John Mayall solo album. The Blues Breakers moniker had been abandoned by that time. Without further adieu, here are the three John Mayall and the Blues Breaker’s LPs every fan should check out:

Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton (1966)

When Eric Clapton, who judging by his autobiography was an enormous twat, left the Yardbirds because they were veering away from his “blues purist” view of music, there was a lot of speculation about what he’d do next. He joined the Blues Breakers and their popularity began to soar… just as that looked like it was going to peak, Clapton runs off to Greece with a group calling themselves “The Glands.” They must have been a group of teenage boys with a wanker name like that. Jeez, Eric. Anyway, he realized he’d made a mistake and came back to rejoin Mayall and the Blues Breakers. This album was the result and it’s a tour de force. I love Cream, but I truly think this was the best lead guitar playing of Clapton’s career. He plays with a strength and confidence I rarely hear. This album is considered a blues rock milestone. I read in Rolling Stone magazine that this record and Clapton’s solo LP, “From the Cradle,” taken together are Clapton’s greatest blues achievement. It’s hard to argue. The instrumental “Hideaway” is simply amazing. “What’d I Say,” the Ray Charles cover is inspired. “All Your Love” is the perfect blues tune. Clapton does his first vocal on Robert Johnson’s “Rambling On My Mind” one of his first and best Robert Johnson covers. Clapton split after this record to form Cream with Jack Bruce (also a Mayall alumni) and Ginger Baker. It’s a shame we don’t have more of Mayall and Clapton together, because it’s one of the greatest albums of all time.

A Hard Road (1967)

How do you replace a messianic guitarist (well, they did used to scrawl “Clapton is God” as graffiti) like Eric Clapton? You find Peter Green. I don’t know anybody outside of Ozzy Osbourne (Randy Rhoads, Jake E Lee, Zakk Wylde) with a nose for guitar talent like John Mayall. I was surprised when I first heard this record that the Blues Breakers, despite line up changes and losing Clapton didn’t miss a beat. This is a great blues/blues rock album with inspired guitar work. The Peter Green penned instrumental “The Supernatural” is worth the price of the LP alone. I may be crazy but I hear the seeds of “Black Magic Woman” in that tune. Great, great guitar work. Green’s guitar sound is different than Clapton’s and this may sound weird, but I almost feel like Peter Green’s guitar sounds… well, sadder. The guy really conveys emotion in the way he plays. Where Clapton was more powerful, Green is more expressive. Just one man’s opinion, and I don’t play guitar. I absolutely love the Elmore James’ cover, “Dust My Blues,” and the incendiary slide guitar Green plays. They also do two great Freddie King covers, the instrumental “The Stumble” which is another stand out and “Someday After While (You’ll Be Sorry)” that blew me away. “It’s Over,” the opening track is a great John Mayall penned tune as well. This is just a spectacular album that I never heard about. You definitely hear the seeds of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac on this album, which makes sense because after this record Peter Green, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood split to form Fleetwood Mac… I guess the formula in the 60s was, do one album with Mayall, split and form a legendary band of your own… At least there was some additional material Peter Green recorded with Mayall that turned up on the remastered, “bonus track” version of the album that came out years later.

Crusade (1967)

What do you do when you’ve lost not one, but two legendary lead guitar players. Apparently if you’re John Mayall you discover a teenage Mick Taylor. I had always known Taylor had gotten his start in the Blues Breakers but I’d never dug deep enough to check out his record with them. Actually, he stuck around for three albums, unlike Clapton and Green, before being recruited to join the Stones as Brian Jones’ replacement. “Crusade” is just another blues rock classic in the same vein as it’s two predecessors. The album kicks off with “Oh Pretty Woman” (not the Roy Orbison tune) and it’s again as if nothing has changed with the band. Although I will say I can tell Taylor’s guitar is different than Green’s. Mick Taylor had such an amazingly melodic way of playing the guitar. Even on these blues recordings I can hear how his lead guitar would mesh with Richard’s ragged rhythm guitar. There’s an instrumental on here “Snowy Wood” which is just fabulous playing (do I hear “Can You Hear Me Knocking” here?). Mayhall had employed a horn section on his previous LP, but never this prominently, they’re all over this record. I like the sax, harmonica interplay on “Man of Stone.” I love, love the version of “I Can’t Quit You Baby” the old Willie Dixon tune that was also done by Led Zeppelin and years later the Rolling Stones, post-Taylor. “Driving Sideways” sounds like a tune a blues band would open a show with… This is just another great blues guitar album.

If you’re a fan of the blues, blues rock, Cream, the pre Buckingham Nicks Fleetwood Mac or the glory years of the Rolling Stones, there is a hell of a lot to like here. A lot of people own ‘With Eric Clapton’ and if you enjoy that record I can’t more highly recommend ‘A Hard Road’ and ‘Crusade.’ Mayall went on to have a long, storied career but other than ‘Blues From Laurel Canyon’ you’re not going to find better blues/blues rock than these three albums. Any fan of guitar will absolutely fall in love with these albums.

This isn’t cry in your beer blues, this shuffle around, chooglin’ music. Pour yourself something strong, dark and murky and start moving, baby!

Cheers!

Artist Lookback: The Often Overlooked Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Two Brilliant LPs

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¬†It was kind of a weird Christmas for me. For the first time in years, there were no square, flat packages under the tree… no LPs? Sad way for a sad year to end. There weren’t even any box sets out this year that I could slip past the Rock Chick and onto my list. I kept hoping Neil Young would put out Archives II, but I guess we have to wait till next year. I couldn’t help but think of last year when I found Bob Dylan’s “The Cutting Edge 1965-1966” under the tree. It was the fabulous box set, reviewed on an earlier post here at BourbonAndVinyl, highlighting outtakes from “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Bringing It All Back Home,” and “Blonde On Blonde.” One of the greatest things about that box set was the incendiary guitar work of overlooked, under appreciated guitar wizard Michael Bloomfield.

So this year, with no new shiny black vinyl under the tree, I found myself drifting back to Bloomfield’s first band, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. I don’t know why that band wasn’t huge but they never found the commercial success they deserved. The British Invasion bands like the Stones were always given credit for reintroducing black blues to the white American audiences, but the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was also critical in that process.

Lead singer, harmonica player Paul Butterfield was a blues enthusiast and student at the University of Chicago when he started hanging out at South Side Chicago blues joints. Eventually folks like Little Walter, Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf were inviting Paul up on stage to play with them. Coincidentally, Michael Bloomfield, son of a wealthy department store family in Chicago, had a similar experience, hanging out and jamming with the blues greats in Chicago. It’s a testament to those old blues giant’s enormous generosity that they’d mentor and encourage these white kids from the suburbs to further the blues. They say that the blues giants recognized Bloomfield’s virtuosity immediately…. Michael himself said, “black people suffer externally in America and Jewish people suffer internally, so we have a lot in common.” All that suffering translated into some amazing guitar solos. As a lapsed Catholic, I often wonder what kind of suffering I could have brought to the instrument, but it’s too late to start now.

Eventually, Butterfield met guitarist Elvin Bishop and they recruited Howlin Wolf’s rhythm section of Sam Lay on drums and Jerome Arnold on bass with Mark Naftalin on keyboards and the line up was set. At the recommendation of a manager/producer they added Bloomfield and the chemistry was incendiary. The dueling guitars of Bloomfield and Bishop is the thing of legend and what I believe every dual guitar band since has emulated – from the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd to Metallica. That back and forth, solo vs solo thing was founded in the Butterfield Blues Band. It broke the mold of lead guitarist, rhythm guy.

They struggled to get their first album on tape. As they attempted to recreate their sound on an album, they continued to grow a cult following by playing live. They famously backed up Bob Dylan at his first public electric performance at Newport. On the version of “Maggie’s Farm” on Dylan’s Bootleg Series Volume 7, Bloomfield melts the faces off the folky crowd with his lead guitar licks. It’s simply the greatest expression of the electric guitar outside of Hendrix that has been committed to tape.

Finally after three false starts, in 1965 the Paul Butterfield Blues Band recorded their eponymous debut album. Not just because I was born there, but because it’s an amazing opening, “Born In Chicago” is one of my all time favorite songs. The album is a mix of new songs, written by band members, and covers of those blues greats who had mentored them. Little Walter’s “Blues With A Feeling” and Muddy’s “I Got My Mojo Working” are stand outs. “Screamin'” and “Thank You Mr. Poobah” make Michael Bloomfield’s guitar felt in your bones. It was blues with a jazz sensibility. It was like “jump blues” was invented by these guys. It was the blues but it sounded all new and it sounded more rock and roll than anything that had come before. The Animals, The Yardbirds and The Zombies wanted to sound this good. These guys just had the chops. Their first album is about as perfect as you’re going to find in blues rock. If you haven’t heard it, do yourself a favor and pick it up immediately.

While it’s easy to think the first album was the peak, just to blow our minds, they followed up with their second album, a true masterpiece, “East-West.” The title track, which ends the album, is a 13 minute work of genius that Bach would envy. Influenced by Eastern, Indian raga and blended with Western blues, its simply one of the greatest pieces of music ever. The Stones even responded with their own epic blues jam “Going Home” which lasted 11 minutes. The Butterfield Blues Band had expanded the limits of what was possible. Jam bands like the Grateful Dead spun their heads around and thought, “hey, we can noodle on and on and get away with it.” The Butterfield Blues Band created the entire jam movement with one song. Bloomfield, Bishop and Butterfield all solo on the song, guitar, harmonica and guitar. It’s like a religious awakening hearing “East-West.” It’s the entire buddhist sixties ethos in a 13 minute song. There would be no Cream without “East-West.”

Other than the epic title track, the second album covers the waterfront of American roots music – from blues covers, Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues” to R&B, Allen Toussaint’s “Get Out Of My Life, Woman,” they prove they can do anything. The traditional blues song “I’ve Got a Mind to Give Up Living” is as mournful as the blues can get. Shit, they even cover Mike Nesmith’s “Mary, Mary.” This band was clicking on all cylinders at this point.

Alas, the incendiary talents in this band couldn’t hold the group together. After “East-West” Bloomfield split to form Electric Flag. Bishop soon followed to start his solo career. Bloomfield also did the seminal “Super Sessions” LP with Al Kooper, his old pal from the Dylan days. Bloomfield, like myself a life long insomniac, ran away from the early guitar hero fame and dissipated to the point of OD’ing on heroin. Butterfield made it to his 40’s but also succumbed to a heroin overdose. I like to think of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band like the stereotypical shooting star, bright and brilliant, but only burning for a short period.

Nobody talks about the Butterfield Blues Band and their two legendary albums, but it’s essential listening to anybody who loves blues, rock and blues rock. I can trace everything I like straight through The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Do yourself a favor and check these LPs out immediately.

Cheers and Happy New Year folks!

LP Review: The Record Company, “Give It Back To You” Strong Blues Rock

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I was talking to a friend of mine one time. The topic turned, as it inevitably does when you’re talking to me, to music. This was guy was a bigger music fanatic than I could ever hope to be. This guy was into the some of the hardest, heaviest metal I’ve ever heard. He was espousing the virtue of a band that I hadn’t come across, Opeth. I think there was a band named Lamb of God. It was all what I call, scary monster rock. He even tried to play me one of those “cookie-monster,” growly vocal type of things. I shook my head. Frustrated, he finally asked, “So what music do you like?” My answer was simple and straightforward. The roots of everything musical that I like can be traced to the blues.

The Stones started as a blues cover band. Zeppelin exploded the blues to the limits of the form. The White Stripes, for all the trappings of being a punk rock band, are a blues two-piece masquerading as a punk band. They cover Blind Willie McTell for heaven’s sake. Give me a hummable melody, good vocals, preferably a great guitar solo, and I’m up and on the floor, headed for the volume knob.

Sadly, you don’t hear a lot of blues rock these days. Gone are the days when bands steeped in the blues like The Animals, The Yardbirds, or even the early Stones ruled the airwaves. If I want to hear bluesy music I have to head down and get the genuine article, at Kansas City’s premier blues club, Knuckleheads. I do miss the days before I met the Rock Chick when the Grand Emporium was KC’s blues hub, downtown, but those records are sealed. Bad men doing bad things to the blues. I saw Koko Taylor there… amazing, but I digress. With these unsettling times, who couldn’t use a little blues music.

About six months ago I came across a great song by a new band, The Record Company. The Record Company is a little three man outfit from of Los Angeles. According to “the Wikipedia,” they were three like minded musicians who would gather together to share their latest blues LP finds. Eventually they put the LPs away and picked up their instruments and began jamming in one guy’s living room. The next thing you know they had an album put together. The tune that originally alerted me to these guys was a song called “Off The Ground,” a greasy blues rock number with a great slide guitar solo. I bought the song but neglected to check out the rest of the album. “Off The Ground” was the first single and I never heard anything else on my satellite radio and subsequently spaced them off.

Flash forward a few months to this week and the Rock Chick comes downstairs and says, “I think you need to hear this…” Never argue with a beautiful woman bearing music (throw in some bourbon and you have all three of my greatest distractions in one package…). I always trust the Rock Chick’s musical instincts. The LP she had was the Record Company’s debut album “Give It Back To You,” the one I had neglected to check out when I bought “Off The Ground.” It was so refreshing to hear some brand new blues rock. This whole album has gone into high rotation here at B&V.

“Off The Ground” and the second single “Rita Mae Young” are great bluesy singles. “Rita…” the second single, is a laid black bluesy tune with a great vocal. These guys do some great acoustic driven stuff. “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely” is built around a great shuffling, acoustic riff. It sounds like something Muddy would have done in his early acoustic days. The title track, “Give It Back To You” is a great acoustic stomper, if you believe a song with that description actually exists.

It’s clear who these guy’s influences are. Naturally critics are likely to decry this as “derivative” but find me any music that doesn’t build on what came before it. “Feels So Good,” “Turn Me Loose” and “In the Mood For You” (a nice rolling blues tune) all feel like they were influenced by John Lee Hooker. About midway through “In the Mood For You” the band breaks into a gallop to the finish line and it’s a wonder to behold. The harmonica is all over that song. Speaking of harmonica, there’s a great harmonica breakdown that starts “On The Move” which also boasts some great, primal drumming. If John Lee Hooker is your reference starting point, sign me up boys. The song “Hard Day Coming Down,” another acoustic blues number has a chorus that makes you feel like you’re going to church, baby! And I mean that in a good way.

It’s probably too much to hope that the Record Company would spark a blues rock revival, it’s a good album, but it’s not going to convince the unconverted. “The Crooked City” is the only real quiet, ballad on this collection. Everything else is firmly rooted in the blues. Like Dan Aykroyd once said, “Pretty soon the music known as the blues will only be found in the classical music section of your local library…” and that is a damn shame.

“Give It Back To You” is a very solid rock album. Usually to hear music like this you have to find an older artist so I’m very encouraged to hear a new band who can play this kind of music. I give this album a definite purchase recommendation. And then, maybe, if you’re brave, it’ll lead you to some actual John Lee Hooker…. or if you’re really, really brave maybe some John Lee Hooker with Canned Heat, like say, “Hooker ‘N Heat,” but now I’m getting way too obscure.

Cheers!

RIP Leonard Cohen.