[Slowhand] Wandering John

John Mills turbineltd at btconnect.com
Thu Jan 24 08:36:57 EST 2008

A Bluesbreaker unbound
By Shay Quillen
Mercury News
Article Launched: 01/24/2008 03:37:01 AM PST

For nearly half a century, John Mayall's band has served as a launchpad for
stellar musicians, from Eric Clapton and the core of Fleetwood Mac to
blues-bar mainstay Coco Montoya.
So it takes something special to make Mayall leave the Bluesbreakers behind
when he hits the road. But that's what he's doing this month as he tours his
adopted home state with Mark Hummel's Blues Harmonica Blowout, an annual
package tour that hits Yoshi's in Oakland on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and
then Moe's Alley in Santa Cruz on Tuesday.
"I thought it was an interesting project and certainly something new for me,
because I'd never worked without the Bluesbreakers before," says Mayall, who
met harmonica virtuoso Hummel last year at a blues awards show. "It looks
like it's going to be a lot of fun."
This year's lineup finds the Oakland-based Hummel and his band, the Blues
Survivors, joined by Mayall, Lazy Lester, Kenny Neal, Fingers Taylor and
guitar ace Rusty Zinn.
Mayall played guitar and piano before he picked up the harmonica, inspired
by 78s of black American musicians such as Sonny Terry and Sonny Boy
Williamson, which he heard as a young man in Manchester, England. He says he
likes the harmonica's convenience and expressiveness.
"The most noticeable thing is that you can carry it around in your pocket,"
he says. "And it's very personal, because it's just like singing, really.
It's a direct thing that comes from your breathing, rather than something
you do with your fingers."
As a key figure in the British blues explosion of the '60s, Mayall got to
back giants such as Williamson and John Lee Hooker on stage. He says playing
with the masters gave him an insight he couldn't get from listening to the
"The main thing about playing with American bluesmen, particularly John Lee,
was the dynamics of the thing," he says. "All the British bands initially
would play too loud. They'd play full tilt, because they were so enthused or
whatever. Backing John Lee Hooker, we realized you had to really use your
ears a lot more."
When Hummel picked up the instrument as a teen in '70s Los Angeles, Mayall
was among the most visible harp players around. While Hummel admired the
older man's playing, more mellow and less heavily amplified than his own, he
also appreciated Mayall's selfless approach to promoting the blues and some
of its lesser-known but deserving musicians.
"I find that really cool," Hummel says. "That's really what I try to do with
the blowouts."
Mayall says he has never performed with Louisiana bluesmen Lester and Neal,
and his last time on stage with Hummel's old friend Taylor, a longtime
sideman for Jimmy Buffett, was more than 30 years ago. But he doesn't sound
"The first time we'll get together will be 4 o'clock on the afternoon of the
first show," he says. "We'll just see what works."
The Bluesbreakers no longer have the turnover they did in the '60s, when in
short succession Clapton quit to start Cream; Peter Green left to form
Fleetwood Mac; and Mick Taylor joined the Stones. These days, Mayall's band
has a stability that would thrill a structural engineer, with his sidemen's
tenures ranging from seven to 22 years.
Mayall downplays his reputation as a teacher and mentor to young musicians,
instead emphasizing what he has gained from them.
"The only reason you pick musicians is because of what they can contribute
and because they turn you on," he says. "It's a learning experience to play.
You find new things that you can do amongst the right people."
Though Mayall will turn 75 this year, he and the Bluesbreakers still play
about 100 shows a year. Mayall credits his continued vitality to avoiding
smoking, drinking and drugs, as well as to good genes. "You know, I don't
feel 75, so that's OK."

Mark Hummel's Blues Harmonica Blowout
With John Mayall, Kenny Neal, Fingers Taylor, Lazy Lester and Rusty Zinn

Where: Yoshi's at Jack London Square, 510 Embarcadero West, Oakland

When: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 7 and 9 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $30 Friday-Saturday, $22 Sunday
Contact: (510) 238-9200 or
Also: 8 p.m. Tuesday, Moe's Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz, $35
advance, (831) 479-1854, www.moesalley.com

Contact Shay Quillen at squillen at mercurynews.com or (408) 920-2741. Find
more of his stories and a link to his blog at

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