That voice is still unmistakable: keening, quavery at times — he will turn 80 this year, after all — but still note perfect and unexpectedly lyrical for someone so committed to the speakeasy world of the blues. And though he seems too ready to deny it, John Mayall’s songs, voice, and harmonica over a chugging groove provided rock ribs to hippie radio and coffeehouse stereos for decades. Tunes like “Oh, Pretty Woman,” “Broken Wings,” and even the gimmicky mouth-scat “Room to Move” transported Mayall from rootsy beginnings to his near-pop-star moment. He ruled the esoteric rocker’s hideaway world of Laurel Canyon until a brush fire destroyed his home and music collection. Nowadays, he tours — at least a hundred shows a year — and likes to strut and fret the moment up onstage, he says. But Mayall, who will play SOhO Restaurant & Music Club next Wednesday, had an arguably greater indirect influence on the ‘60s scene. Legends like Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Peter Green, John McVie, and Mick Taylor all enjoyed Mayall’s blues tutelage in his revolving-door band The Bluesbreakers before going on to enrich Western culture with little projects like Cream, Blind Faith, Fleetwood Mac, and the Rolling Stones.
On the phone with him at his newer Southern California home, I ask if there’s anyone Mayall wishes he could bring up now. “I’ve always been excited that I had total freedom to play with who I like, whoever was along for the ride,” he said, citing the qualities of his current band. They’re all American players with strong, real connections to Texas (Rocky Athas, who came up with Stevie Ray Vaughan) and Chicago blues (bassist Greg Rzab and drummer Jay Davenport) who are “very adaptable,” as Mayall puts it. “Every night we play, I’m surprised; some new sound comes out.”
He won’t air regrets about other blues people the world has neglected, though he admits things are hard. “I wouldn’t want to mention one over another; there are too many to name, actually. But, how about me, for instance? I’ve never had a hit record, I never won a Grammy Award, and Rolling Stone has never done a piece about me. I’m still an underground performer.”
Mayall’s eyes are trained on performances, mixing modes, and seeking breakthroughs, though he isn’t really writing right now. “There really isn’t any opportunity for it,” he explained. “If I had a green light to record somewhere, then I would be buckling down and putting together the ideas I’ve had in my head for a while.” But it isn’t a matter of applying some specific sound. “The point about a song is that it’s a story, so you suit the music and the words to the story you have to tell.”
The prospect of an Independent interview seemed to console his feelings of historical neglect (full disclosure: That was sarcasm), but he’s clearly looking forward to playing here — and a few months later in Poland and Denmark; it’s all the same place for the band. “Wherever we go, there is a good crowd of people, and we try to make each night different,” he said. “We have a catalogue of about 20 songs. I just try to mix them up every night, the oldies with the new stuff. We’re always trying to surprise ourselves.”
John Mayall plays SOhO Restaurant & Music Club (1221 State St.) on Wednesday, May 22, at 8:30 p.m. Call (805) 962-7776 or visit sohosb.com.