For a bloke in his mid-eighties, John Mayall’s voice is very much in fine fettle. We’re not talking about skyscraping singing of course, but for singing Chicago-type R’n’B, in the vein of Muddy, Wolf and B.B. King, he’s doing darned well. Not in their league, to be fair, but still able to hit all the right notes, and deliver them with character.
Of course Nobody Told Me is being sold partly on the basis of the impressive parade of guest guitarists that Mayall has assembled, and we’ll get to them in due course. But focusing on the guitar solos alone would short-change this collection, because it has some other stuff going for it. For one thing, although the aforementioned R’n’B can be a pretty restrictive form, Mayall has managed to come up with enough subtle variations across ten tracks to keep the listener interested. For another, his own harp and keyboard playing deserve attention. And it’s all well-captured by producer Eric Corne, well known as Walter Trout’s producer of choice.
|There's a harmonica in there somewhere, John!|
The seven covers, of varying vintages, range from Magic Sam’s warm and relaxed ‘What Have I Done Wrong’ and Little Milton’s swinging ‘That’s What Love Will Make You Do’, both punctuated by horns, to the more deliberate ‘Evil Here To Stay’ and reflective ‘The Hurt Inside’. Meanwhile the three Mayall originals close out the album, including the jump blues-like ‘Like It Like You Do’ and the concluding slowie ‘Nobody Told Me’, the former a wry and sparky tribute to the archetypal woman of a bluesman’s dreams, the latter its world-weary and resigned my-baby-done-left-me counterpoint.
These two closing tracks are impressively decorated by the guitar work of Carolyn Wonderland, who I must confess is a new name to me. But she makes an even more distinctive contribution to the cover of Joe Bonamassa’s ‘Distant Lonesome Train’, adding slithering, slicing slide guitar to its tugging, slow train rhythm, ahead of a ringing ending. The result is a track that decisively shakes up the middle of the album.
Bonamassa himself features twice. First there’s the opener ‘What Have I Done Wrong’, with a strolling guitar lick over bubbling bass from Greg Rzab, and a restrained solo adding to subdued organ. Then later he adds a stinging, well-constructed solo to the jaunty ‘Delta Hurricane’, penned by the Uptown Horns and once recorded by Larry McCray, with a probing bass line and organ solo from Mayall.
McCray, in turn, also gets a couple of outings. ‘The Moon Is Full’, written by modern day artist Gwendolyn Collins, has a bright sound and a tumbling bass riff in the background. McCray litters it with tasty fills, and on his second, closing solo goes into high-speed mode – though I’d question whether it adds much to the equation as Mayall’s lush organ solo. And the same is true of Gary Moore’s ‘The Hurt Inside’, on which there’s a more-ish ascending lick at the heart of his first solo and pleasing bursts of conversational playing, but then a closing wah-wah solo that ultimately feels overcooked.
The other three guest appearances come courtesy of Alex Lifeson, Todd Rundgren, and Steve Van Zandt – none of them what you might regard as the usual suspects.
Lifeson, a veteran of 40 years in Rush, the master practitioners of proggy hard rock, seems like the least likely candidate. But he does have a bit of form, bearing in mind their Feedback EP of covers, including ‘Crossroads’. And here he adds a suitably spiky, lower register solo to the brooding ‘Evil Here To Stay’, twinned with a moody piano solo from Mayall – who also adds sporadic bursts of harp – over deep, fuzzy guitar chords. Might an Alex Lifeson Blues Band make for an intriguing post-Rush project?
On the easy-going ‘That’s What Love Will Make You Do’ a jangling, jagged guitar riff is juxtaposed with mellow organ from Mayall, supplemented by vibrant horns and a funky rhythm section courtesy of Rzab’s bass and Jay Davenport’s drums. And in the midst of it all Todd Rundgren’s solo transitions naturally from the riff to a variation on the melody and back again.
Van Zandt features on the first of the Mayall originals, ‘It’s So Tough’, a song that I’d guess he’d identify with lyrically. Observing that we live in a time when “a crazy guy’s in charge,” Mayall uses a gently appealing melody to urge the listener to “Think more about your neighbour, ‘Cause now it’s up to you and me”, while Little Steven adds patient, shivering guitar to electric piano colouring.
Nobody Told Me is a grower of an album, coaxing you in bit by bit, and revealing more of itself on repeated listens. It may not be wall to wall genius, but it still carries the torch with style. Never mind all the guest stars, just lay back and enjoy the ride.
John Mayall is touring Europe in March and April 2019 - details here.