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!

Happy Keithmas Everyone – Keith Richards’ Birthday

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I spent a very cold December winter day watching my Chiefs once again fumble away a winnable game against the Tennessee Titans… Needless to say I found myself sulking around the house, as adult men do when their sports teams lose. I was thinking that this dark funk of a mood was something that even a tumbler of Buffalo Trace wasn’t going to help… Although I will admit, with the Rock Chick making her dangerous egg nog, the bourbon was quite available…

Suddenly I realized that today is one of the 12 days of Christmas… It’s Keithmas…. Keith Richards’ birthday. While that may not help my hapless Chiefs playoff chances, it’s a great thing that Keith is even alive at 73. How long was this guy number one on the famous people’s “Death Pool” during the 70s and 80s. The fact that this man, with all the drugs, booze, arrests and alas, his head injury has survived into his 70’s is a cause for hope for all of us out here. If this guy can persevere, can’t we all. I often find myself thinking, “What would Keith do?” And when I do that, things turn out all right.

If his last album, “Crosseyed Heart” is any indication there’s still a lot of life in rock and roll’s original pirate, outlaw, renegade. I’ve always loved Keith Richards. When I was a teenager, and I was first turned onto the Stones, I wanted to be Mick Jagger. As I got older and the realities of life began to settle in on me, I realized I wanted to be Keith. He was the outlaw, living outside of society. Never one to give into the conventions of “straight” society, the man has lived, as Sinatra sang, “my way.”

So many rock stars have tried to imitate the style and the sneer of Keith Richards… but he was truly an original and remains so to this day. I love this picture of Keith I used for this post – it’s not the young 70s superstar, it’s the rocker in repose, aged like a fine wine. Hat cocked to the side, taking a drag of a cigarette, skull ring on the right hand, staring right at you – perhaps right through you. Keith, 73, and still the man!

So, Happy Birthday Keith Richards and here’s to wishing you many more. In Keith’s honor today, I poured my bourbon over a skull-shaped ice cube that the Rock Chick produced from the freezer. It seemed only appropriate. And while I’m still stinging from the horrific offense the Chiefs put on the field today… Buffalo Trace, a skull-shaped cube and “Crosseyed Heart” on the stereo…. Yeah, it’s going to be ok… As Keith would sing, “You shouldn’t take it so haaaaard…”

Cheers!

LP Review: The Rolling Stones, The Superb “Blue And Lonesome” – They Come Full Circle

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In the beginning, for me, it was The Rolling Stones. As a kid, I only turned on the radio to listen to sports, most likely the Royals game while I was trying to go to sleep. It was my brother who had the stereo and all those odd albums with the strange, colorful covers. Then I heard the song, “Miss You,” and shortly after that “Beast of Burden.” That music hit me in the lower brain stem. I immediately went out and bought the LP “Some Girls,” the first album I ever bought with my own money. In many ways that album changed my life forever… I’ve been looking for that same “Some Girls” high every time I drop the needle on the vinyl. I then made a cassette recording of my brother’s double album, “Hot Rocks,” the Stones iconic greatest hits album. I wore that damn thing out. Suddenly I was saving up money for one of those cheap, turntable/receiver/cassette players all in one stereo unit.

In the beginning, for the Stones, it was the blues. Thank God, it was the blues. Everything I’ve ever liked is based on the blues and I think that’s probably because the Stones were my “first.” Their early albums were essentially blues cover albums. “England’s Newest Hitmakers” and especially “12×5” are two of the greatest blues/blues rock albums ever recorded. They were full of young man bluster back in those days. Now, with the release of the amazing new “Blue And Lonesome” it seems that the Stones have come full circle. They’ve returned home, they’ve returned to their roots, the blues. In many ways it was the Stones who turned America back onto the blues. They shined a light on this “black” music and suddenly white audiences rediscovered the blues. Keith says shining the light back on the blues may be the only thing that gets him into heaven… good luck with that Keith.

Much has been written about the creative conflict between Keith, the blues/rock traditionalist and Jagger, who has always had an eye on what’s current. That push and pull, with Keith looking backward and Mick looking forward is what a lot of the experts think has fueled the Stones creative process over the years. In light of that, it’s easy to think of this as a “Keith album.” And, it was Keith who suggested they try the Little Walter tune, “Blue And Lonesome” in order to get comfortable in the new studio they were recording a new album in last December.

However, I would beg to differ with the idea that this is a more Keith-centric record. People forget that while Mick likes to stay current, he’s always kept an eye on the blues. As late as 1993 he holed up in L.A. with a local blues band, The Red Devils, and recorded an album of blues songs, which sadly remains unreleased to this day, except for 1 track on Mick’s solo “Charmed Life” collection. I found a great live set of Mick doing blues tunes at the Mustique Blues Festival with his back up band. Yes, he’s always looked forward, but Mick is still firmly rooted in the blues. At the Stones 50th Anniversary show I saw in New Jersey, Mick brought the Black Keys and Gary Clark on stage to do Freddy King’s “Goin’ Down.” Mick’s blues cred is pretty solid with me. I would argue, with all their personal issues (the biggest being Keith’s stupid comments about Mick in his autobiography) the one thing that holds these guys together is the blues. It’s their common vernacular.

The Stones never completely abandoned the blues. I can remember the first time I heard “Down In A Hole” from the “Emotional Rescue” album. That’s a great blues song. “Black Limousine” from Tattoo You and “Back of My Hand” from their last studio album, “A Bigger Bang” are great, later period blues tunes from the Stones. Every Stones album has a great blues tune hidden in their somewhere. Each live album they did seemed to have a blistering blues cover on it. They never really left the blues, however far they roamed musically.

“Blue And Lonesome” does bring the Stones full circle but these aren’t the same young men who recorded the blues over fifty years ago. These guys now sound like Muddy when he did “Hard Again,” elder statesmen who have grown into these songs. While I can certainly picture Keith sitting with his guitar on a chair near Charlie’s drum kit with a shit-eating grin on his face while they recorded this album, this is the Mick Jagger show. His vocals are so committed, he’s feeling these tunes. There’s zero affect in his voice. His enthusiasm was clearly infectious within the band. Mick Jagger is the greatest harmonica player in rock and roll and he proves it on this album. It had to be a very conscious decision of Keith’s to lead Mick to the songs of Little Walter (three of which are recorded here), the blues’ greatest harmonica player, to get this thing jump started. It was an inspired choice. The harmonica drives a lot of these tunes. I was frankly blown away by Mick’s playing, it’s simply put, out of this world. Even the Rock Chick came in and said, “This sounds great, Mick is an amazing harp player…” which was a surprise as I’ve never heard the Rock Chick use the term “harp” to describe a harmonica. That woman is like an onion… so many layers.

The sound of this album grabbed me right away. These are loud, dirty blues. The music explodes out of the speaker with a strength and force that surprised me. The album has the sound of a late night blues club, in a shack on the outskirts of town, near the crossroads. I don’t know about you, but I’d certainly pay the cover charge to get in. It sounds like a party and the Stones are having a blast. Mick’s vocals and harmonica are right out front in the mix. The rest of the band just sort of rides behind him in the pocket. The playing is right in the groove. There is some great guitar playing, but again it takes a back seat, it’s more of a compliment to the songs. Eric Clapton plays on two tracks, and his best solo is probably on “Everybody Knows About My Good Thing.” I would say that Ronnie Wood matches the heights of Clapton’s solo on the title track, his playing is just great. The vocal from Jagger on “All Of Your Love” starts off as a visceral howl. It’s his most impassioned vocal here. I can never say enough about the fabulous drumming of Charlie Watts, he’s definitely the engine. I love the fact that they didn’t select well known tunes, they went deep into the blues catalog. Only a band like the Stones, with their knowledge of the form, could put together a song list like this. I love the version of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Commit a Crime.” Many folks think the blues are all slow tunes, but a lot of these tunes are upbeat “jump blues” kind of tracks like “Ride Em On Down.”

This is a great, great album. It seems the Stones now only put out one album per decade so this is a big fucking deal. I’m hopeful they continue working on that new album they were recording when this creative blues super nova burst. Now that they’ve gone back to their early days, playing the blues, maybe they’ll revisit their dirty rock 70’s period. “A Bigger Bang” was such a great late-period album from the Stones I was hopeful we’d see a return of them releasing albums more frequently. Of course that was 11 years ago. Even if they don’t finish the new batch of tracks for an all-new album, I’m pretty happy to have “Blue And Lonesome.”

Put this one on loud, pour a Blanton’s bourbon over some ice cubes and dance around… I guarantee clothes will start coming off. “Blue And Lonesome” gets BourbonAndVinyl’s strongest recommendation! Enjoy!

Cheers!

The Rolling Stones: “Just Your Fool” The First Single From ‘Blue And Lonesome’

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I haven’t been able to post much lately as my corporate overlords have had me on the road, traveling almost constantly. Then as inevitably happens in the fall, I fell ill. Too much time breathing the shared air of the airplane probably didn’t help either. Although I will say bronchitis does give me an excuse to cut back on the bourbon I am so fond of…but I digress. There is a lot of exciting new music coming out and newly released music to blog about. It’s truly an exciting time for rock fans – I just wish I felt better to enjoy it. Most exciting for your humble BourbonAndVinyl enthusiast is the new blues album coming out in early December from the Rolling Stones.

In the beginning for me, as a rock fan, it was the Stones. They were the first band to pierce my seeming obliviousness to music and all things rock and roll. ‘Some Girls’ was the first proper album I purchased with my own money. And for the Stones, in the beginning, it was The Blues. Their early records, “England’s Newest Hit Makers” and “12×5” were basically blues covers albums. It was the blues that brought Mick and Keith together at that train station over 50 years ago. It was the blues they played all around London at clubs like the Marquee Club.

I have always loved the Stones but have been frustrated with the lack of new music from them. The last non-greatest hits, non-live LP they put out was the superb “A Bigger Bang” and that was in 2005. It’s hard to believe these guys have waited 10 years to put out new music. Keith’s autobiography “Life,” where he disparaged Mick probably didn’t help their ability to sit down across a table and write music together. Sure it’s easy to tour and play on a stage but creative chemistry is a tougher thing to gauge.

I had heard that the Stones had gone into the studio late last year and was elated. Keith has said recently they were struggling to find a groove when he suggested they jam on some old blues covers to knock the cobwebs off. Apparently those sessions caught fire. Even Eric Clapton, who was recording next door, was pulled into the room for a couple of tracks. Over the course of three days the Stones recorded enough old, Chicago blues to fill an album.

The first salvo from that record is a great blues scorcher “Just Your Fool.” As the Rock Chick commented when I played it for her, “I love it when Mick Jagger plays the harmonica.” His harmonica is the first thing you hear on this old blues chestnut. This is rough and raw blues, the way it was meant to be played. Charlie Watts beat is in the pocket, his playing is just superb. These guys have been playing the blues for so long it’s their second language. Mick and Keith may diverge on a lot of points these days, but not the blues. It’s the thing that ties them together. They sound like they’re having a lot of fun. This is a great first single from what I hope to be a great album.

Of course this blast of blues leaves me with more questions than answers. Will they continue to work on a new LP of all new stuff? Will this spark the creative juices and heal the wounds between Mick and Keith? I certainly don’t know but I’m glad we have the Stones doing what they do best, the blues.

Cheers!