For a bluesman, John Mayall has been around the block a bit and still looks pretty good for someone who’s past the seven decade mark and closing in on his eighth. Mayall is a multi-instrumentalist, performing on harmonica, guitar and keyboards, and his voice is fairly unique although one can hear some of the phrasing he picked up from one of his idols, the late J. B. Lenoir.
The list of sidemen who have played for him is long and esteemed, with some making it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He has had electric quartet and quintet lineups, groups with horn sections and acoustic ensembles with a discography that dates back to 1964, when he released his first album, a “live” date called “John Mayall Plays John Mayall.”
The current band has a Texas guitar bite via Rocky Athas and the Chicago punch of the rhythm section, bassist Greg Rzab and drummer Jay Davenport. Like most of Mayall’s bands for the past few decades, these guys have impressive chops and resumes; Athas has played with Stevie Ray Vaughn and Buddy Miles, Rzab has gigged with Otis Rush and Buddy Guy, and Davenport has backed up Junior Wells and Pinetop Perkins.
So, this may be the latest band to march out under Mayall’s command, but these guys are road warriors with enough punch and flair to make an audience sit up and take notice but wise enough not to outshine the boss.
Mayall was a genial presence on the stage Saturday night, playing keyboards and harmonica and singing. His voice may not be as strong as it once was, and his keyboard playing is nothing extraordinary, but his harmonica chops are still pretty strong. This was apparent right from the get-go, when he appeared sans band but with harp in hand to sing and play “Another Man Done Gone,” a song he remembered doing on tour with the second Sonny Boy Williamson in the 1960s.
His basic repertoire during the show understandably ranged across the years. While his timeline began with “Another Man Done Gone,” he also dipped into a number of decades for his set list, including “Nothing to Do With Love” from his last album, 2009’s “Tough,” one of the highlights from early in the concert.
On much of Mayall’s back catalog it was difficult to escape the fact that, for instance, Eric Clapton played lead on “Parchman Farm” and “Hideaway” on the infamous “Beano” album or that Mick Taylor did the same on “The Bear” and “Long Gone Midnight.” These were big shoes for Athas to fill, especially since his tone is broader, not as lean. However, when the band cranked it up with “Nothing to Do With Love,” with an arrangement that was better suited for Athas’ style, things sounded more natural, less forced. The rhythm section was solid all night long, with Rzab’s steady pulse giving way to flurries of thumb-powered funk at times and Davenport’s in-the-pocket groove locking the group into place.
Buffalo Music Hall of Fame member Jim Ehinger played keyboards and sang in a short and relaxed opening set.