critic’s pick 138

If there is a single instance on the new four-disc anthology So Many Roads that defines the sound and progressive spirit of British blues titan John Mayall, it would involve the three brilliant minutes making up the 1967 instrumental The Super Natural.

It’s a spacious, trippy tune that introduced the world to the extraordinary guitarist Peter Green, who also penned the composition. The Super Natural is based less on the blues and more on an open, mournful lyricism that would later become a template for bands like Santana.

That’s just one of the doors Mayall opened by bridging the essence of the blues with a then-contemporary sense of rock and soul adventure. So Many Roads only focuses on the first decade of a journey that continues today with Mayall, at age 77, still touring as a blues warhorse. But those 10 critical years summarize Mayall’s many stylistic innovations, the vast number of stellar musicians (like Green) he introduced and the drive it took to create one of the most persevering voices in British blues music.

Much of the first disc celebrates the seminal 1965 edition of Mayall’s Bluesbreakers band with Eric Clapton. Its sound is heavily traditional with Clapton’s guitar lines matching the churchy organ foundations set down by Mayall. The spirits – and the very tunes, in fact – of Otis Rush and T-Bone Walker are summoned on these sessions and serve as permeating inspirations for Mayall originals like Telephone Blues.

The guitar chair rotated between several colossus players during those years. Clapton made way for Green who quickly departed with the Bluebreakers rhythm section of bassist John McVie and drummer Mick Fleetwood to form Fleetwood Mac. That led to a fruitful year-long tenure by future Rolling Stone Mick Taylor. His stay is highlighted on So Many Roads by the chant-like Eastern lilt of Fly Tomorrow – one of four tunes taken from the seminal 1968 album Blues from Laurel Canyon.

After Taylor bolted, Mayall reshaped his sound dramatically. He tossed (for a time) drums, downshifted the guitar sound to spotlight the acoustic finger picking of Jon Mark and allowed the reeds on Johnny Almond to provide the more earthshaking solos in an otherwise heady, meditative sound. California, originally from the 1969 live album The Turning Point best reflects this period. An unreleased Sleeping By Her Side from the Fillmore East concerts compiled for The Turning Point (with Almond on flute) is an exquisite bonus.

And that’s simply the highlight reel. The rest of this vital primer should be considered essential listening for anyone with an ear for how American blues were worshipped and then reshaped by a resourceful enthusiast from across the pond.

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