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John Mayall’s Band / Oli Brown Band

Live at Cadogan Hall, London

The veteran bluesman and band leader always manages to pull something special out of the bag for his visits to the capital and tonight’s eve-of-halloween performance had magic and quality in equal measures. Stepping out to announce his opening band for the evening in the shape of the Oli Brown Band, Mayall mused aloud whether any of the audience might be ‘ interested  in guitar players…’ – the ultimate tease for the London blues fans as sharp six-string work is a guaranteed feature of any Bluesbreakers show.

Oli Brown and his two cohorts took the stage and take a stealthy slink into their first offering ‘I Can Make Your Day  ‘. I recognised the snare drumwork immediately as that of Wayne Proctor, band and session man par excellence and of course as any modern blues enthusiast will know, a kingpin of the admirable band Amor, tall man John Amor’s group project after the first incarnation of The Hoax. With bassist Ron Sayer aboard, not much could go wrong in the engine room with this well-chosen support slot. Ron and Wayne also sing, which brings another dimension to certain parts of the arrangements. Looking like Albert Lee’s shock-haired nephew, Brown sings and plays with a crisp mixture of abandon and precision and more to the point with his ensemble not sounding particularly like other trios past or present. One reason for this is the wide range of songs he selects. He steers his white Tele through ‘Mr Wilson’, then veers into a Robin Trower mode for a languid solo that purrs and bites. ‘Devil In Me’ has a choppy swing and emphatic vocal.  Then he does justice to a song from the late great Donny Hathaway’s ‘Extension Of A Man’ album – ‘ Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know’, singing like an angel and playing with a clipped fervour. One of the best moments of the whole night. The three players sing during the funked-up fun of ‘Hot Diggity’ then a Johhny Winterish closer wraps up the set. Just right.

Oli Brown

When the star attraction takes the stage, the audience is well and truly warmed up and ready to savour the songs. Mayall blends crowd pleasers and nods to his original influences – especially Rice Miller aka Sonny Boy Williamson 11 -  plus some of his superior originals.

Rightly renowned for bringing fabulous lineups out on tour, John Mayall has really found the cream in the Chicago rhythm section of drummer Jay Davenport and fusion bassist Greg Rzab. Davenport sound uncannily like an early Butterfield Blues Band sticksman a lot of the time as he rattles out breaks and rolls but at other times it’s as if ‘Spectrum’ era Billy Cobham is sitting in. When Rzab solos as Mayall often encourages him to do, the Stanley Clarke influence is manifest but deftly aimed to complement the mood of the material. The crowd take to his lively outings, as he makes the bass strings sing and sound akin to high-flying birds or even at one point a pterodactyl being evicted from a nightclub by Robocop……

John Mayall and Rocky Athas

As for Texan axeman Rocky Athas and his red Les Paul, he makes his mark in his usual subtle way. With years of experience framing the gritty vocals of the Larry the singer in the Rocky Athas Band, this guitar ace has nothing to learn about playing in a band. The guitar tone is kept on the edge-of-feedback level but at comfortable volume, enabling Athas’ lines to sing and swoop  ; and whilst others solo, he keeps up a sonic thread of chords, chugs and fills.  Tonight’s events keep him on his toes, but knowing Rocky as I do, he always welcomes the challenge to bring the right dynamics to the set.

As for Mayall, I have seen several Bluesbreakers lineups including ‘Crusade’, the Bath Festival all-star grouping with Peter Green and (at the Royal Albert Hall) the ‘USA Union” group ( with my hero Harvey Mandel and the late Don ‘Sugarcane’ Harris) and I have never heard John play better than tonight. He is truly inspired, upbeat and fluid and cannot disguise his delight at the quality of his players, namechecking them when he feels appropriate. His harp work is authentic and effective, his keyboard stints organically solid and very musical and his use of his customised guitar his best ever, even taking in a variant of tapping that sound fine against the agile Gibson lines of Athas.  To see him on such form thrills the audience, it is an exciting show and not the plodding visit to the blues museum some may have feared.

From the solo set starter ‘Another Man Done Gone’ with just longform ‘G’ harp for accompaniment, Mayall drives things along, taking in Otis Rush gem ‘All Your Love’ , SBJ’s ‘Help Me’, the lament ‘Blues For The Lost Days’ complete with scorching Rocky solo, a bustling ‘Parchment Farm’ and a reflective but smoking ‘Nothing To Do With Love’ from his ‘Tough’ release.  Some neat unison harp and piano livens up ‘Early In The Morning’ and the familiar ‘I Wish You Would’ tempo of ‘Room To Move’ works pretty well.

Anything can happen in a Bluesbreakers show and the audience whoops at the arrival for encores of the teddy bear figure of former JMB guitarist and ex-Rolling Stone Mick Taylor and his gold Les Paul. Mick seems happy as Larry to be aboard as he flicks out sharp fills and then produces a slide for some eerie figures during the moody ‘California’, this evening given an airy Steely Dan touch. The evening ends with a voodoo stomp through ‘Congo Square’ but for this writer the earlier dynamite version of Mayall’s ‘Mail Order Mystic’ had alone justified the trip to the metropolis. Audiences throughout the country will find much to enjoy when these two outfits arrive and perform

Pete Sargeant

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