John Mayall - vocals/keyboards/harmonica/guitar; Joe Yuele - drums; Coco Montoya - guitar; Rick Cortes - bass
Few bandleaders in the 1960s had the vision or ability to constantly change musicians and still create intriguing music every step of the way. John Mayall was one. Like Miles Davis and Frank Zappa, Mayall had a visionary knack for recognizing talent, and more importantly, how to assemble and arrange this talent into powerful musical units. In many cases, Mayall was the catalyst for these younger musicians discovering their own voices, gaining confidence and defining their sound. This inevitably led to musicians striking out on their own, often to much greater success.
In the mid-1960s, Mayall had some of the greatest British guitar players working for him. Eric Clapton, followed by Peter Green, had helped redefine British Blues and brought a raw intensity (as well as volume) to the proceedings, that was being recognized globally. Mick Taylor, who followed Green as lead guitarist, proved yet another visionary choice. As the 1960s were ending and with Taylor becoming a Rolling Stone, Mayall would reinvent his music, shifting away from the high volume electric blues of his previous outfits. Instead, he began creating rich textural music that incorporated folk, jazz, and roots-based elements into his blues-based sound. Although blistering electric guitarists had been a prominent element of Mayall's music for years, he was determined to push his music into new areas. To help him achieve this musical vision, he recruited two new musicians that would prove to be inspired choices. Mayall brought on board the highly accomplished acoustic finger-style guitarist Jon Mark and one of the most talented multi-instrumentalists in England, Johnny Almond. It was a daring move that bore great musical fruit and a live Fillmore East recording of the group (The Turning Point) would become a modest hit in America and score Mayall the closest thing to a hit, with its infectious closing number, "Room To Move." Just as this group was gaining recognition, both Mark and Almond would leave Mayall's employment to pursue their own paths creating the more esoteric jazz-influenced outfit, Mark-Almond.
Mayall would relocate to California in the early 1970s and continue exploring and expanding the musical palette of his bands, first with USA Union (which featured Harvey Mandel and Sugarcane Harris) and then veering into jazzier territory with his Jazz Blues Fusion outfit (which featured Freddy Robinson and Blue Mitchell). Mayall's knack for recruiting inspired musicians never wavered. Although his high-profile gradually diminished and releases became less frequent during the 1980s, he continued to perform and produce compelling music. In 1982, Mayall took an unexpected turn, teaming back up with three musicians from his previous line-ups (that had also relocated to America) and reviving the Bluesbreakers' name. Along with Mick Taylor, John McVie, and Colin Allen, Mayall again took to the road, and the Bluesbreakers toured the club circuit in Australia and America, garnering rave revues. This outfit never entered the studio, but was recorded for a live home video and CD release and response was universally enthusiastic. However, with McVie only on temporary hiatus from Fleetwood Mac and Taylor pursuing his solo career, it was destined not to last and Mayall was again without a band.
Having regained some of his popularity during the time with his old friends, the time was right to take the next step and create an altogether new version of the Bluesbreakers. Enter Coco Montoya, the longest-lasting guitarist of Mayall's career, who would remain with the band for a solid decade and reinvigorate Mayall's music in the process. Montoya had begun his musical career as a drummer, recruited in the 1970s by blues great Albert Collins. Montoya became a close friend and disciple of Collins, who taught him his "icy hot" guitar technique. Upon hearing Montoya playing at a barroom jam session, Mayall recruited Montoya to join his new incarnation of the Bluesbreakers that he was in the process of forming. Working as a bartender at the time, Montoya jumped at the opportunity to work with the British Blues legend. He first appeared on Mayall's 1985 live album, Behind The Iron Curtain, along with guitarist Walter Trout. There was immediate chemistry, and their fiery guitar work helped reinvigorate Mayall's career, allowing him to again successfully tour the world. With an ability to play smooth and with plenty of velocity, Montoya too would eventually depart for a solo career but not before helping Mayall to create two of the finest albums of his later career, Chicago Line in 1987 and Sense Of Place in 1990. Both of these studio albums, despite breaking no new ground, conveyed Mayall in top form and remain peak moments in a career containing many.
This live recording of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers (in its 36th incarnation!) is particularly interesting as it captures the group shortly after the release of Sense Of Place, when they opened a series of Hot Tuna performances as San Francisco's Warfield Theater in March of 1991. Featuring Montoya on guitar and the supple rhythm section of bassist Rick Cortes and drummer Joe Yuele, this is an excellent example of this lineup at the peak of their powers. The fact that the performances primarily focuses on material from Chicago Line and Sense Of Purpose makes it even more intriguing as it provides listeners the chance to hear some of Mayall's greatest later-era studio work in a live setting. Recorded by the Bill Graham Presents crew, this is a well-balanced recording that easily conveys Montoya as a guitar force to be reckoned with and Mayall in excellent form, providing organ, piano, synth, harmonica, and lead vocals, often simultaneously.
Never one to rest on his laurels by playing familiar old material, nearly all of this set is sourced from the two aforementioned albums, beginning with two from the new album at the time, "Sense Of Place." "Congo Square" kicks things off with the voodoo rhythms of New Orleans, immediately establishing a deep cohesive groove that commands attention. By the time they hit the second number, the relaxed Chicago-style blues of Jimmy Lee Robinson's "All My Life," the entire band is hitting their stride. Featuring a fine guitar break from Montoya, this serves primarily as a vehicle for Mayall, whose harp blowing and piano work is superb.
Maintaining the Chicago flavor, the group next explores Jimmy Rogers' "The Last Time," one of the high points of the Chicago Line album. This up-tempo shuffle finds Mayall on organ and electric piano developing a swinging call and response with Montoya. On the second instrumental break, Montoya begins letting loose with a burning solo that builds toward a great little jam with both Mayall and Montoya wailing away. A cover of Don Nix's "Black Cat Moan" follows, providing a showcase for Montoya's impressive slide guitar skills, the intensity of which results in him breaking a string.
Another new number follows with "I Can't Complain," written by Mayall's wife Maggie. Proving that the blues can indeed be optimistic, these lyrics explore the endless day-to-day struggles of life, but rather than wallowing in self-despair, the chorus relays an unrelenting positive attitude with the lyric "I Can't Complain." With its upbeat message and sense of humor, this features an inspired solo from Montoya, which can only be described as joyous.
A more familiar blues theme is explored on "Tears Come Rolling Down," another key track from the Chicago Line album. A standard blues, there is nothing standard about the musicianship here, as Mayall and company explore the theme of a failed relationship. Here Montoya truly cuts loose with a sizzling solo that burns with emotion. Following Mayall's final verse, Montoya cuts loose a second time, recalling no less the searing feel of Jimi Hendrix's slow blues version of "Voodoo Child." It's a remarkable performance that shows this entire band in a most positive light.
With ten minutes of stage time left, Mayall closes the set with the biggest hit of his career and perhaps his most definitive song, "Room To Move." This memorable harmonica workout is no less exciting here, and has been further developed to showcase each of the musicians. This is perhaps the best example of Mayall's ability to sing and play harmonica seamlessly and his performance is both expressive and infectious. Establishing a brisk momentum with tight ensemble playing, the band then drops out completely. With the audience maintaining the rhythm with their clapping, Mayall launches off into his unforgettable percussive scat singing sequence, no less impressive in 1991 as it was in 1969. At approximately the 3:40 mark, the musicians begin easing back in until all are cooking away. Mayall takes the first solo on piano, but most impressive is Rick Cortes' melodic bass work, which propels the entire group here. This leads up to impressive solos from both members of the rhythm section. Following Yuele's drum solo, all join back in for a brief but delightful exchange between Montoya's guitar and Mayall's harmonica, before they slide back into the song's final verse and chorus.
Few musicians experience the career longevity that Mayall has, and this recording serves as a fine example of the man, just as he was entering the fourth decade of his illustrious career. Although his early Bluesbreakers recordings may indeed be the most groundbreaking of his career, this later incarnation of the band is equally enjoyable and worthy of attention. There are not many musicians at age 60 who can tear it up in the manner that Mayall does here.