in performance: john mayall

John Mayall and band. From left: Carolyn Wonderland, Greg Rzab, John Mayall and Jay Davenport. Photo by David Gomez.

At first, John Mayall was all business on Monday evening, introducing “One Life to Live” before a sold out Grand Theatre audience in Frankfort by recalling his military service in Korea. But a wider survivalist instinct won out. Performing at age 85 with unblemished authority and enthusiasm, the bluesman referenced the title as a kind of life credo, adding as an aside, “Glad it worked out.”

For nearly two hours, Mayall sailed through a repertoire that spanned his entire 55 year recording career as something of a blues sage. His vocals sounded remarkably consistent with albums he made decades ago, his keyboard work (delegated between a portable Roland for piano sounds and a similarly compact Hammond for, you guessed it, organ accents) still possessed a natural and flexible sense of animation (shifting from blues to jazz to New Orleans inspired funk), his guitarwork reflected a brittle lightness that mimicked piano tonality and his trademark instrument, the harmonica, yielded giddy, rootsy and conversational expression.

All have been elements that made Mayall a blues pioneer from the ‘60s onward. There may have been a little less menace to his musicianship during the performance than in years past, a shift that seemed to be dictated more by choice than age. Still, Mayall presented the past and present eras of his mammoth catalog as if they were the product of a singular, spirited artistic mind.

The newer material made fine use of his long running rhythm section of bassist Greg Rzab and drummer Jay Davenport, whether they were orchestrating the second line groove to “Gimme Some of That Gumbo” or the sinewy shuffle of “Don’t Tempt Me.” Both were pulled from Mayall’s 2017 album “Talk About That.”

The catalyst to the group, outside of Mayall’s own leads, was the enlistment of Austin, Tx. guitarist Carolyn Wonderland. An immensely tasteful player who opted for precise but boldly complete phrasing over indulgent solos, Wonderland proved a resourceful foil to Mayall all evening. She was also a potent vocalist, injecting Mayall’s 1969 anthem “The Laws Must Change” with gospel-esque fervor.

Then there were the wonderful instances where all four players performed with a unison voice that was as inviting as it was disarming. Mayall teased about the 1988 tune “Dream About the Blues” being a slow blues, which, technically, it was. But the band, especially Wonderland, detonated the song as a volcanic slow burn full of rugged and rockish intensity.

Mayall saved his biggest treat for last by using “Chicago Line” as a vehicle for a harmonica spree full of soulful zeal. This has been one of the bandleader’s cornerstone compositions through the years. It served a highlight of his 1965 debut album (“John Mayall Plays John Mayall”) and was reprised in slightly spruced form as the title tune to a 1988 recording that largely reignited Mayall’s career (the concert featured four songs from the record). Monday night’s version adhered more to the ’65 arrangement – vital, playful and curious in its sense of stylistic and melodic wonder. Much like Mayall himself.

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