by Perry Meisel
It's common wisdom among John Mayall fans that you can never relax when you listen to those early electric albums that powered the British Blues Revival--you've got to be ready to change the song when the next one comes along. Something embarrassing might happen--an anemic vocal, a windless harmonica solo, an uninspired use of the lustrous horn sections punching behind the thundering guitar leads. It was a labor of love, though, listening to those big band recordings. Though the initial response to Mayall's subsequent drumless group was a generous one, due largely to the novelty of pairing acoustic guitar with reeds and harp, Mayall's appeal suffered a serious decline because of it. His lack of taste as a player, complicated by his limited chops, had usually been hidden by the power of the earlier bands, with Eric Clapton, Peter Green, or Mick Taylor on guitar. The lightweight band put Mayall himself too much to the fore.
Now that he's back with a full group on his new live album, one's interest is rekindled. But the characteristic problem is intensified: the mixture of relief and pleasurable anticipation at the news that he's again sporting a big electric band with horns is qualified by that nagging wince, cut after cut, at Mayall's own cluttering of the music with his omnipresent - indeed, omnivorous (but with what poor teeth!) - harmonica. Though Mayall means the harp to be a rhythm instrument much of the time, one still has to ask, What, then, is the point of the horn section? Particularly exasperating is Mayall's sheer vanity in the face of some of the best soloists he has ever fronted.
Freddy Robinson plays a fast, cool guitar, rich with turns and lush chording reminiscent of Wes Montgomery. And yet his one stylistic weakness - the temptation to say too much too fast - flaws his performance throughout. Like Mayall, he often takes up an undue portion of the ensemble sound, filling when unnecessary.
When Clifford Solomon's alto rears its burning head midway through the first tune "Country Road" (a Mayall original, like all the cuts), Robinson's guitar, much less Mayall's harmonica, palls by comparison. Solomon's soloing (on tenor and alto) is consistently the best in the band. He achieves that rare mix of sparseness and funk that one looks for in a blues soloist. His tone is hard and rich on square, high-stepping numbers like "Country Road" and "Mess Around"; smooth and swinging on "Good Time Boogie" where he opens up the way you always wish a horn player would.
If Mayall's harmonica is a sore thumb during guitar and sax solos, it is downright outrageous when it cuts in on Blue Mitchell's trumpet. The very fact that Blue - one of the jazz greats - is blowing in a Mayall band at all is enough to raise questions better left unasked. Blue gets squeezed out or challenged by Mayall time and again: on "Country Road," on "Good Time Boogie" (where he starts to cook on his first chorus and then - toot! toot! - you can hardly believe Mayall's nerve) and "Dry Throat," a tight, funky tune perfect for Blue's cool, subtle horn. Except on "Got To Be This Way," where Mitchell finally gets it on, his trumpet is uninspired - but what can you expect from the kind of environment Mayall has created on these live sets?
For the most part, Mayall seems to have grossly neglected the ensemble sound of the band. Magnified by his apparent indifference to the horns - a double irony, given the power of his hornmen and the title of the album - Mayall's job of arranging and directing is shockingly sloppy. To call the album a jazz-blues fusion is as misleading as it is pretentious: the very idea of a "fusion" of jazz and blues is absurd in the first place. The common parent of jazz and rock, the blues is a given unity, calling on individual talents to make it or break it. But why the "problem" of "fusion" at all? Why all the fuss that began with Kooper's BS&T? There's no clear distinction between rock and jazz, much less jazz and the blues. "Fusion" occurs when you're unaware of it: as usual, self-consciousness kills.
But for John Mayall - an enormously important and devoted musician in spite of himself - a look in the mirror shatters the rare beauty always about to be born.
Originally published in Rock, August 14, 1972