Concert Review: John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers (The Egg, Albany, New York, March 21, 1996)

“Ladies and gentlemen . . . please give it up for John Mayall, the Godfather of British Blues!” hollered Bluesbreakers’ guitarist Buddy Whittington from the right stage shadows after a country-boogie opening number sans Mayall. As Whittington’s boss bounded into the corona of an interrogation-quality white spotlight and began making ugly with his mouth-harp, I remained stuck on Whittington’s introduction. Godfather? Wasn’t Mayall due a promotion after 35 years of pushing the blues? If the Space Alien that ate poor little Michael Jackson’s brain and then assumed Jackson’s shape (sort of) could be crowned King of Pop, shouldn’t Mayall be crowned the King of British Blues?

My attention was drawn back to the stage when Mayall started waving his hands in a most unroyal fashion and shouting at the stage crew to “Put the spotlight on Buddy and keep it there!” Seeing Whittington in the bright light, I suddenly appreciated the subtle wisdom of his introduction. A Godfather is charged with the care and spiritual development of his wards — and had Mayall not spent three decades showing his care by shouting “Put the spotlights on Eric… on Mick… on Peter… on Jack… on Aynsley…” we might never have seen Peter Green, Mick Taylor, the Artist Formerly Known as God and countless other blues/rock greats emerge from behind Mayall’s shadow. The King in the Spotlight wilts and dies — but the Godfather whose reflection illuminates the dark spaces around him lives on and on and on.

This Godfather has actually lived on a long time already (he’s 63) but still has a performing stamina that a musician half his age could brag about; Mayall never stopped moving for almost two hours, even offering a honky-tonk barrelhouse blues solo while the much younger Bluesbreakers took a mid-set breather. Mayall’s vast depth of experience also let him bend “normal” expectations on how seemingly contradictory ’90s sociopolitical concerns can be transcended in fine music: “Nature’s Disappearing” could serve as an environmental terrorist’s fight song, “Remember This” could be performed at a Promise Keepers’ rally — but in Mayall’s voice, both songs inclusively touched the common grounds of decent human behavior and compassionate human experience.

The evening’s instrumental high points came whenever Whittington’s pointy-booted barbecued Texan guitar stylings had to fight their way upstream against Mayall’s veddy English cascading slurries of organ flatus. “So Many Roads” most effectively displayed this intriguing marriage of countrified Southwestern blues and gentrified Delta-by-way-of-London fare, but almost all of the material presented from Mayall’s latest album Spinning Coin could have been held up as fine examples of this newish twist in our rootsiest native musical form. When all was said and done, two standing ovations from the sell-out crowd were as ample a testimonial as could have been provided on Mayall’s ability to raise feelin’ bad music to shivering, leg spinning in mid-air, ooo-dat’s-nice heights. If this is suffering, then paint me masochistic.

Earlier in the evening, Popa Chubby pulled off a rare coup with his “heavy duty heavy metal blues” — he actually got cheered back for an encore as an opening act. Chubby belted out songs like “Sweet Goddess of Love and Beer” in the way that only a 300 pound man can belt and he came armed with the kind of guitar chops for which Jimmy Page would’ve killed Robert Johnson’s own mother, if given half a chance. Catch Chubby on the next of his frequent small club stops in the area — you really need to be as sweaty as he is to properly appreciate the full Popa experience.

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