I saw John Mayall at The Duchess back in 2009 and, after five years, hadn’t expect to see him back in York again. When I saw from the listings that he would, indeed, be back, albeit at the bigger, more prestigious and, let’s face it, more expensive Barbican I was in two minds as to whether to go along or not. The fact that this was billed as his 80th anniversary tour convinced me. After all, how many other chances would there be to see such a legendary musician? And so, even after leaving it very late to pick up a ticket, I found myself at the Barbican for the second time in four days (and for only the third time since it re-opened).
The first surprise was that, as I showed my ticket to the lay on the door, she said to me, “John Mayall is just over there if you want to say hello.” And, yes, there he was. Behind a table, chatting to fans and signing copies of his latest album. Oh, and despite just a month away from his 81st birthday, single-handedly rearranging the furniture around him. Not in a position to buy an album (I had already blown my CD budget for the month) I quickly purchased a copy of the surprisingly affordable and informative tour programme, only to hear Mayall tell another fan that he was only signing albums before the show but would be back out afterwards with his band to sign other items. Oh well.
Support for the evening (and, indeed, the tour) came from King King, who I had previously seen at Fibbers early last year. Opening with More Than I Can Take and Taken What’s Mine their brand of keyboard-drenched Blues got a good response from the audience and frontman Alan Nimmo soon showed a good rapport with the crowd. Definitely not a dour Scot and more of a jocular Jock – on seeing him come on stage dressed in his usual kilt, one audience member near me, presumably a King King virgin, commented that if he didn’t have a Scottish accent there would be something wrong – he continued a running joke of encouraging cheers every time he mentioned the album Standing In The Shadows. Introducing Jealousy from that album, he explained that it was written by a hero of his, Frankie Miller. Another cheer brought forth the quip that, “the further North we go, the more people have heard of him.” The extended instrumental section of Can’t Keep From Trying was preceded by what, from the back, looked like a small dance from Nimmo and by the next song the audience were well and truly into the performance, clapping the introduction, singing along mid song and giving extended applause at the end. And then came the highlight. I love the version of Old Love on the band’s debut album, Take My Hand and seeing it live last year was a joy. Tonight, if anything, it was even better. The incredible guitar solo section from Nimmo is quite simply beautiful. As it got quieter and more subtle, each note being given room to breathe and fade away, Nimmo moved to the very edge of the stage. As the lights dimmed to near darkness, the music faded almost to silence. Then, as it built back up to the track’s climax the audience, so quiet and, I like to think awestruck a few seconds ago, once again applauded enthusiastically before giving a standing ovation at the end. A short but well-received set and a perfect opening to the evening.
The short break between acts gave me a chance to glance around the audience and muse about how many would have attended if this gig had been held at The Duchess again. Indeed, how many were there last time? I certainly don’t remember anybody dressed as a BBC test card, as one gent a few seats away from me was. Being almost at the back of the auditorium, I could see that there were enough people there this evening that, while not quite filling this venue, would have made The Duchess very crowded. I wonder if people are put off gigs depending on where they are held. Anyway, I digress…
Once more belying his age, Mayall walked briskly onto the stage where, surrounded by his band, but with a bare minimum of equipment he kicked things off with a rendition of Congo Square. Starting off on the keyboard, with energetic playing and clear vocals, he soon moved to a lively harmonica section, then played both at the same time, log white ponytail flying. The harmonica also featured on That’s All Right, a Jimmy Rogers standard from Mayall’s latest album, A Special Life. The lively opening led into something that had a distinctly old-fashioned feel, particularly in the vocals, and some great guitar work from Rocky Athas. Mayall himself took over lead guitar duties for Do I Please You?, which he explained dated back to 1967 and “a very lusty affair.” Although I’m not the most familiar with the standards, even I recognise Sonny Boy Williamson’s Help Me. An instrumental section in this version sees the guitar of Athas and Mayall’s keyboards interplaying brilliantly. The guitar work during Sonny Landreth’s Speak Of The Devil was less flashy, yet still impressive. Introducing Dirty Water, Mayall admitted that he couldn’t remember which album it came from because, “there’s so damn many”. Then came a slight distraction from the music. One audience member, who had been wandering in front of and leaning on the stage seemed to complain to Mayall that the Barbican staff were telling him to sit down and preventing him from dancing. With shouts of “let him dance” and “sit down” the audience seemed split. “F*ck me, it’s an international incident,” quipped Mayall before taking up lead guitar duties again. (The audience member was soon escorted out, let back in and repeatedly returned to his seat by staff for most of the rest of the set. Personally, I thought it was less distracting when he was left to stand up. But then, I was at the back and he wasn’t standing in my direct view of the stage…) Greg Rzab was featured, during Dirty Water, with a bass not-quite-solo and, despite wracking my brain, I can’t remember the last time I saw anybody play the neck of a bass. Mayall himself played an intricate section on the neck of his guitar during Give Me One More Day, a song about when he stopped drinking thirty years ago. Another standard, this time Otis Rush’s So Many Roads, saw a sonorous guitar background morph into an impressive, audience-pleasing lead. The finale of the set, Chicago Line, saw the band improvise quite a bit, Mayall subtly indicating when each band member should fade out and come back in again. Everybody got time in the spotlight, with Rzab finally being allowed a proper solo and Jay Davenport a short, yet powerful and energetic, drum solo. The whole thing lasted ten minutes and, after Mayall had introduced the band, Athas and Rzab fought good-naturedly over the microphone and the right to introduce Mayall. Rzab won.
But, of course, there was an encore. And the ever energetic Mayall practically ran on stage at the start of it. The last song of the night took us back almost to the beginning of Mayall’s career with Otis Rush’s All Your Love – the first track on Mayall’s second album (Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton). Once again the audience were on their feet at the end. I might have thought that this was, possibly, the last chance I would get to see John Mayall perform live. On the basis of tonight, however, there is every chance he could be back again, in another five years. Oh, yeah and I did get that programme signed at the end of the gig. I even got to shake the hand of a music legend.