"Ten years are gone," laments Mayall, "good times disappear, memories. . . ." A combination of melodramatic complaint and genuine mellowing, this new album finalizes Mayall's passage from rock star to something we still have no name for - not jazz musician, certainly, but a stature in the rock world without precedent. He is a landmark musician who seems at last to have reached a solid, flashless plateau.
The current band (a variant of the jazz blues fusion group he introduced a few years ago) worth of casually arranged blues originals (two sides in concert), varying in mood with lots of soloing for everybody. This is the blues all right: a bunch of guys who've seen their day - Mayall, former jazz great, trumpeter Blue Mitchell, Memphis session guitarist Freddie Robinson, and tenorman Red Holloway - huddling together to fend off the chill of age and the fickle demands of pop taste. But in an equally real way the music is timeless and admirable, combining a wealth of solo styles within the flexible structure of the blues.
The studio record is far superior to the live one - who doesn't prefer a snappy, driving sound to a series of messy jams? Drummer Keef Hartley and bassist Victor Gasken (who plays acoustic stand-up in concert) turn in the best performances, churning or swinging flawlessly under spotty soloing.
Mayall restrains himself more than usual throughout, though there's (typically) too much harmonica and too little of his underrated keyboard. The longest concert jams "Free Form" (the title's a sure warning there's bullshit coming up) and "Dark of the Night" (which follows "Burning Sun" in an absurd attempt at dramatic juxtaposition) - are boring and embarrassing by turns, though when a strong groove surfaces amid broken tempos the relief is startling.
The studio sides, though, limit solo time, thus forcing all the musicians to compress their ideas, making for cleaner, more incisive playing. Sugarcane Harris's country blues fiddle spices things nicely here as does Red's horn, particularly his dazzling sweet alto on "I Still Care," a Sam Cooke-style ballad by Mayall, the one non-blues tune on the album.
You also get the feeling that these guys are all in it together, a feeling missing on the Fusion album, where Mayall had not yet learned to respect his new sidemen, surely as strong a bunch as he's ever fronted.
Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, January 22, 1974