I have to admit that the last time I listened to a “new” John Mayall album was in the early 1970s. At that time Mayall was already considered the godfather of British blues and a bit of an elder statesman. Having helmed The Bluesbreakers, famous for their successive triumvirate of guitar heroes (Clapton, Green and Taylor), as the 60s waned he moved to LA, became somewhat mellower and funky on albums such as Turning Point. That’s around where we parted company as Mayall kind of fell off the weekly music press radar and a fickle teenager like me had found new acts to follow.
Mayall, now 88 years old, has of course released a slew of albums in the interim and retained his reputation, certainly within the blues community. The Sun Is Shining Down however has been given a push, perhaps due to his recent announcement that he is retiring from live shows (he’s 88, god bless him) and perhaps due to just sheer disbelief that he can still deliver the goods. I was certainly curious when I loaded this into the CD player and then quite astonished that, in the first instance, Mayall just about sounds like he did some fifty years ago, and also, that it’s a bloody good album.
His voice is just that little bit more weathered (heck, he sounded old way back then) but there’s no sense of strain or easing in while he remains a wizard at blues harmonica. With his regular band of several years standing (bassist Greg Rzab, drummer Jay Davenport, and guitarist Carolyn Wonderland) stoking the engine, Mayall pulls a fine trick in inviting several guest players including guitarists Buddy Miller, Mike Campbell, Marcus King and Melvin Taylor, violinist Scarlett Rivera, and ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro to sit in. The result is ten songs which, while rooted in the blues, all carry their own unique signature with the guest artists all given their solo moments to shine in.
So, there are amped up horn driven roustabouts such as Hungry and Ready and the superb squall that is Driving Wheel along with more traditional blues as on A Quitter Never Wins. I’m As Good As Gone (written by Grammy winner, Bobby Rush), with Buddy Miller’s baritone tremolo guitar burbling away amidst Mayall’s swirling Hammond organ, is simply superb and when Rivera comes on board on Got To Find A Better Way, one is transported back to Mayall’s early 70s sojourn with Sugarcane Harris. The steady but sure One Special Lady is given an unexpected lift when Shimabukaro weighs in on an electric ukulele, delivering a solo which definitely is unlike any ukulele sound these ears have ever experienced as it buzzes and burns.
Mayall closes the album with the title song which recalls his work with Mick Taylor on Blues From Laurel Canyon. Whether it’s a valediction we have to wait and see but it’s the sound of a man contented with his surrounds and it provides his guitar player, Carolyn Wonderland, an opportunity to show that she is no slouch as she delivers a wonderfully sinuous solo which is the equal to those of the star guests. If you haven’t bought a John Mayall album in the past fifty years, you should buy this one.