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CD Review Legendary British Bluesman takes the easy route to some decent but predictable music.



John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers

- In the Palace Of The King

Eagle Rock \par As much as I love the blues (and I'll give you an example of how much: for about a ten year span I listened to blues music almost exclusively) it's always been difficult for me to review a blues album. I mean, what new and insightful critique can you make about a genre of music which hasn't really evolved since the 1950's? Think about it: has blues music really changed that much since Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters decided to take their plantation folk songs and add a little electricity to them, both figuratively and literally? Sure, a few great artists and true personalities have come along who have put a distinctive stamp on the music, but as far as form and sound, few if any artists have broken new blues ground.

It is this lack of innovation which has turned blues from an artist-driven means of expression to something more controlled by a record label's marketing division than anyone playing a guitar or singing a song. An example would be some of the bigger blues albums to have been released by the labels over the past decade or so. For the most part, these big-name blues albums by the well-known, established blues artists (i.e. the ones most likely to sell a decent amount of albums in the first place) have pretty relied more on a particular concept than just presenting a killer set of classic songs. From the late John Lee Hooker's and B.B. King's all-star love fests to the innumerable tributes to the legendary Robert Johnson from all and sundry, blues has become stuck in a marketing rut even when the music is strong enough on its' own.\par Dishearteningly, it is business as usual for this album by the Godfather of British Blues John Mayall, which is another tribute-based blues album (in a long line by Mayall), in this case devoted to the music and spirit of the oft-overlooked blues guitarist Freddie King. Though Mayall does stray off the beaten path a smidge by picking the least-remembered of the three blues Kings (B.B. and Albert being the other two, of course) to honor, the results are the same: generally good playing by Mayall and his current line-up of Bluesbreakers (with guitarist Robben Ford making the all-important guest appearance) using the recording-label-sanctioned tried-and-true recipe of three parts reverence and one part restraint. It's the perfect formula for a blues album designed not to offend the blues' now middle-aged and older audience and not frighten away the yuppies they hope will embrace blues as they get older.

While, to be honest, there is really nothing bad about with this CD, my usual complaint about these "event" blues albums is my confusion over why the record company suits are just not satisfied with having the legendary Mayall make an album full of his own songs? Sure, he's more well known for discovering major talents like Eric Clapton, one-time Rolling Stone Mick Taylor, and most of the early line-up of Fleetwood Mac than his own musical abilities but Mayall has improved greatly over the years and has become a fitting elder statesman for the blues. By forcing him to come up with these tributes only dilutes his own talent. Still, I cannot say this album is not a decent album. Mayall and his band play with conviction and with an honest intent to do justice to Freddie King's music. As far as the songs, for the most part Mayall relies on King's late-period Shelter albums to gather material to cover. King's earlier work (for King records coincidentally) was more instrumental in nature and more than a little gimmicky. By the time label owner Leon Russell lured King to Shelter, King had given many years both to the business and to life itself and had found in life's many pleasures and pains a maturity well beyond his years. King became a true artist at that point, with a wide palette of emotions to tell both his stories and ones written by others such as Don Nix. In fact, if you listen to King's albums from this mid-'70's period you would swear you were listening to vintage Clapton. It is this King that Mayall chooses to celebrate and I'd be lying if I didn't say I was touched by the work Mayall and his crew does, including killer guitar work from Mayall and anyone else who touches the instruyment during these sessions. King would be proud.

Blues fans will no doubt love this and I like it as well. But, what would really make me happy is if record labels would leave blues artists alone, quit miring them in the past with these tributes and allow them to record their own songs and grow a little as artists. Maybe then the music can advance and find a new audience. Until then, no matter how good thess tribute albums are, the only people listening to them will be the same old blues fans and there will never be any advancement of the music.



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