Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
September 18, 2012
The Mayne Stage
By Liz Mandeville
Photos: Alex Kluft
Photos: Alex Kluft
We arrived at the beautiful Mayne Stage in Rogers Park Tuesday night, excited to see veteran British Blues/Rock multi-instrumentalist and master Blues Breaker, John Mayall -- the latest in a series of surprising, high quality mid-week offerings. The Mayne Stage, a comfortable room with state of the art sound and great sight lines, serves up valet parking, plenty of good seating, reasonably priced libations and nibbles, making it a terrific place to “get away” mid-week. It’s fast becoming a favorite spot for international touring acts as well.
A respectable crowd of grey haired Baby Boomers with closed faces and crossed arms filled the room. Tough crowd indeed for opening act Pegi Young and her seasoned four piece band who gave a spirited 50 minute show that featured many soft rock/country infused originals from her latest CD, Foul Deeds. Mrs. Neil Young did manage to get the crowd rocking by mid-set; the diminutive diva, singing with a light pop voice and strumming an acoustic guitar, was well supported. In fact her lead guitarist was a stand-out playing his Tele with equal authority on every groove from blues to something that sounded like vintage Rush; but we couldn’t understand what Pegi was saying or singing most of the time so unfortunately we can’t credit him.
After a short intermission, John Mayall came out and started his show solo with an acoustic blues, sung and played on the harp, his version of a Sonny Boy Williamson tune. The crowd responded enthusiastically! He then introduced his band. On guitar, from Texas, was Rocky Athas, who really knows his way around that Gibson Sunburst Les Paul. A powerful yet unassuming player, he was equally adept at playing support as he was at his very impressive leads.
The rhythm section were both Chicagoans and they certainly did us proud. On drums was the rock solid Jay Davenport, whose time and pocket created a perfect framework for the electric performance given by the band as a whole. On bass, Greg Rzab gave a tour de force solo near the end of the show, but given his amazing talent, showed admirable restraint blending seamlessly with Davenport and Athas for a rhythm section that made the star stand out and shine.
The band romped right into a Canned Heat cover with John Mayall putting his enormous hands all over that Roland RO7000EX keyboard; the crowd roared its approval. Next was “Nothing To Do With Love” from the 2009 album Tough which was John’s 57th official career CD. The song is very heavy with John singing really strong, playing octaves on the boards, the bass pedaling on the root note.
Sonny Landreth’s “Congo Square” was next with Mayall employing a clicking “club organ” patch on his keyboard to start the song. Jay Davenport rolled in, relieving any question of this song’s Louisiana origins, the second line masterfully steaming forward, his snare work like beautiful, plush carpeting on the foundation of this minor piece. You could almost hear the banshee wail in the pounding keys and screaming guitar.
The guy sitting next to me, who excitedly told me that his buddy in the next seat had “turned him on to Mayall when they’d been 16 year old high school kids,” kept exclaiming over the massive size of Mayall’s hands. “You gotta mention them in your article!” he exclaimed as the two 50-something men leaped to their feet to dance to Congo Square. Decades fell away from this tired crowd who responded to the music like they were actually being pulled by the voodoo drums in the songs lyric. Mayall’s rhythm section propelled us all deep into the swampy bayou beat and suddenly the mardi-gras beads hanging around the blues masters’ neck made perfect sense. How he managed to make the piano sound as if it’s wafting in on a breeze through the steamy southern night is beyond me – it was perfection.
It was such a pleasure to watch this band. John Mayall, an artist with a recording career that reaches back to 1965, was unassuming, erudite and charming. He displayed not a shred of temperament or arrogance, despite minor technical glitches that caused his keys to cut out during the intro to one song. His reaction was the adorably British quip “Oh well, I guess that means we’re all fallible.” The audience was right with him. As he regained power they cheered for him to “Just start it again, John.” And so begins “I’m Moving On,” with John and guitarist Rocky Athas trading lead licks seamlessly. The band were all smiling, clearly enjoying themselves throughout the show and Mayall’s’ obvious delight in the music the band was creating shone on his face.
Otis Rush’s “So Many Roads” was next. Athas, picking the lead with his fingers, gave the tune a decidedly West Side feel, the band displaying beautiful use of dynamics. One thing I love about the Mayne Stage for concerts, it’s never too loud. Here the guitar moans and cries and it’s the perfect volume, the perfect balance of feel and technique coupled with a heartfelt arrangement that tells me this band has found their center. This only comes with years of playing experience and trusting each other’s choices, lending the song the strength to be quiet, to build and grow to a climactic fever that sends the transformed crowd into a huge ovation.
Following that with a song from his first album, Chicago Line, saw John playing both harp and keys. You could see he was enjoying himself as he tilted his head to listen, dancing a bit as he chose his moments, picking out variations on the theme in a staccato piano then switching the keys to a nice vibes patch. It was during this song that Greg Rzab clobbered us with his talent. He got a drum stick from Jay and played tapping style with it; he roared over the fret board ending with the familiar “Smoke on the Water” riff. Unexpected and witty, his solo got the entire crowd on its feet for a standing ovation.
A jump-swing tune followed, the band was on fire and having a blast! John took an octave infused solo, three or four choruses that whipped by, then he sang another verse and was back barrel-housing, his whole body engaged in the rhythm. Another standing ovation and then the song that everybody had come to hear: Mayall’s big hit, the seminal “Room to Move.” It was John trading licks with drummer Jay, first with solo harp then he was making beat box rhythm noises showing us scatting brought into a rock arena. Davenport, giving as good as he’s gotten, the thing going on until every possible combination of licks has been traded. Next Mayall brings the bass player back in and he soloed into a funky version of the Beatles “Within You and Without You.” Very strong, John played harp and piano, and then they went into a drum solo that unexpectedly sounded just like Jay was playing “Room to Move” even though the instrument he’s playing is drums, completely without melodic capacity, but he’s doing it! Completely badass!
As “Room to Move” came to its exciting end, the band was introduced. They said “Thank you and goodnight,” but the crowd was having none of it! They’re on their feet demanding an encore and what they got was a terrific version of Freddie King’s “Hideaway.” It was a magnificent set of music and even more brilliant considering that the youngest member of the band is in his 50s and the band leader is 79 years young. Not only did he give a stellar performance that was both completely endearing and invigorating, Mayall then went out to meet and greet, sign autographs and hob-nob with those who crowded around for his attention. I was one of those crowding around and I was rewarded with a firm handshake, twinkling smile and a photo with a very classy bluesman that shows no sign of slowing down. If you see that John Mayall is playing at a music venue near you, make it your business to go see him, it’ll make you feel 16 again. For tour info and more, visit: www.johnmayall.com
One added note, while we waited in the Mayne Stage’s Act One Lounge for the valet to bring our van around, we were treated to a solo acoustic concert by Chicago bluesman, Keith Scott. He has traded his Hendrix brim and psychedelic blues for some North Mississippi acoustic folk blues. It was good to hear him expressing his roots and talking of musicians who were fixtures on the scene in the salad days of Chicago blues in the ‘80s. All told, it was the perfect musical sweet to top off the delightful appetizer of Pegi Young and main dish of John Mayall’s music we’d so enjoyed.