Brainwashed by Commies!
Poor, well-meaning JOHN MAYALL. He spits out seeds that bloom and flourish while his own stalk remains barren. That's the story of Mayall's career, now in its fifth decade. Recognized as perhaps the most important progenitor of blues from the British Isles and as a talent scout and bandleader without peer, Mayall's own skills as a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist have often gone unheeded in the face of the incredible talent he's surrounded himself with over the years—talent that includes such names as Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor, Peter Green, Jack Bruce, Aynsley Dunbar, Coco Montoya, Sugarcane Harris, Harvey Mandel, Larry Taylor, Blue Mitchell, Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, Jon Marc, Johnny Almond, Keef Hartley and Buddy Whittington. Through their entrances and departures from his band, Mayall has earnestly plugged away like a blue-collar father watching his brood thrive and surpass him. He never did much bitching or yapping about it all until very recently, even as his own career took a dive from arenas to clubs after his late-'60s/early '70s commercial heyday, when his "Room to Move" was omnipresent on the FM airwaves.
But the fact is, through some 50-plus album releases over the years (not counting anthologies), Mayall has never stopped creating new approaches and formats within the tired genre of the blues—which is something akin, after all, to teaching a Galpagos turtle to bark like a dog.
Admittedly, Mayall's emphysemic whine of a voice can be rather grating in large doses. He's only a competent keyboardist and harpist rather than a virtuoso. He's older than Bob Hope's swaddling cloth and something less than a dynamic live presence. He's not black, and he's not American—all things that factor into his failure to transcend the club level in the past few decades. But to his credit, Mayall's long been one of the best and most personal songwriters in the blues and something of a progressive master chef, as he mixes up influences and instrumentations like a methed-out Emeril Lagasse feverishly seeking to create the perfect torte while eliminating all off-flavors.
The off-flavors, in this case, are blues clichs, which Mayall would seem to wipe from the face of the Earth like the hantavirus. He's uttered nary a "woke up this morning" or a "rock's been my pillow" since he first burst on the scene in the mid-'60s with Clapton in tow (and some still consider Clapton's work with Mayall the finest of his own much-hyped career).
Mayall finally addressed his frustrations on last year's Padlock on the Blues album. Personal, heartfelt and touching, Padlock was as much an autobiography as it was a blues album. "Sometimes I wonder what some critics out there would have me do," he muses on the title tune. "I've had my ups and downs like everybody else, sometimes been abandoned," he laments on "Ain't No Surrender."
But the most biting statement on Mayall's career trajectory was written by two of his current band mates, guitarist Whittington and drummer Joe Yuele. Their "Always a Brand New Road" was a testament to their boss and his relative lack of celebrity. It puts words into Mayall's mouth in terms stronger than he dared write for himself: "I've built careers down through the years, stood back and watched 'em take the credit/It might have made me a bitter man, but I'm much too strong to let it."
The deal with Mayall is that he's really not a "bluesman" at all. John Mayall makes John Mayall music, using the blues as a foundation rather than as a template. No higher compliment can really be paid than to state that Mayall is a genuine original working within a genre too often known for its rigid formulas. Appreciate John Mayall on Saturday night at the Coach House.
It has been seven years since KOKO TAYLOR's Force of Nature was released, and now that her new Royal Blue has finally hit the racks, it's apparent that the intervening time has taken its toll on her wrecking ball of a voice. It's as if decades of tortured, throat-rending screaming have finally ground the poor woman's pipes down to aerated, tattered tissue flapping in the wind.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, as Taylor's blues wail is less histrionic, churchier and more soulful here than on any previous effort. It's sort of like late Billie Holiday; there's now a world-weary bedragglement to Taylor's timbre, and she's now forced to imbue her material with pure emotion rather than relying strictly on muscle and grit. In fact, this may be my favorite Taylor album ever, despite the what-the-fuck-is-HE-doing-here guest appearance of hateful Kenny Wayne Shepherd (in more appropriate cameos, B.B. King and Keb' Mo' also appear).
Taylor's essential badass attitude remains as resolute as ever (betcha she could whip Etta James and Patti LaBelle in the ring on the same night!). Song titles include "Keep Your Booty out of My Bed," "Keep Your Mouth Shut and Your Eyes Open," and the originals "Don't Let Me Catch You With Your Drawers Down" and "Old Woman," wherein the 64-year-old intones: "I'm a old woman, built on a young woman's frame/All I need is five minutes, I'll take any woman's man."
Yeah, well, I'd sooner bathe in a tub of bong water as get between the sheets with Koko's naked, withered old clam, but I'd still rather hear Taylor belt the blues than any of her more fetching young-blood sisters like Zakiya Hooker or Shemekia Copeland. On Royal Blue, Taylor has aged noticeably but oh-so-gracefully.
I have very little patience with cartoon bands who need to inject some dumb-ass shtick into their act to get their music over. So why do I love THE RED ELVISES so much? Because they're genuinely amusing. And because these strutting, arrogant Russian greaser-niks can play really, really, really well. According to the group's website bio (at www.redelvises.com), their "musical influences include Elvis Presley and his wife Priscilla, Chuck Berry, Spice Girls and speeches by Comrade Fidel Castro." Allow me to add to that: I also hear strains of Dick Dale and Duane Eddy, Bob Marley and Prince Buster, Bob Wills and Tito Puente, Gene Vincent and Carl Perkins and . . . Weird Al Yankovic.
This hot-shit, four-piece pleasure machine plays rockabilly, swing, surf, ska, reggae, Latin, country, Russian folk music, and old-fashioned rock & roll with wild chops to spare and a sense of absurdist merriment conspicuously missing from most pop music since the days of groups like Madness and Ian Dury & the Blockheads. "Kick-Ass Rock & Roll From Siberia," they call it. "Ve don't golf . . . VE ROCK!" is their motto—a fine motto to have, if one must have one.
Amazingly, these luna-chiks have released seven CDs in the past four years, somewhat justifying their claim to be "The Hardest-Working Band in Show Business"—another of their many mottoes, this one appropriated from James Brown, of course. I'm pretty sure that most hardcore fans of rockabilly or surf rock wouldn't approve of the Red Elvises, as they piss in the face of pop-music culture pieties and make jest of just about everything such people view as sacred. That lack of approval from stone-faced trendies is just one more reason to love this band. Get brainwashed by the Commies on Sunday night at the Blue Cafe.
JOHN MAYALL performs AT THE COACH HOUSE, 33157 CAMINO CAPISTRANO, SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, (949) 496-8930. SAT., 8 P.M. $19.50; THE RED ELVISES play AT THE BLUE CAFE, 210 THE PROMENADE, LONG BEACH, (562) 983-7111. SUN., 10 P.M. $6.
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