In late 2008, there was a three-month gap where it looked as if John Mayall, “the Godfather of British Blues”, would be calling it a day and hanging up the mantle of bandleader for good. After a gruelling tour in the previous year promoting his 56th studio album, In the Palace of the King, a tribute to blues legend Freddie King, the 76-year-old grandfather of six decided to disband his long-running outfit the Bluesbreakers—no more of the nurturing environment that gave youthful blues talents such as Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor, and Peter Green room to breathe—and limit himself to the occassional guest appearance. Since then, however, Mayall has put together a new touring band, been around Europe with them twice, and fulfilled a commission for a new album from his label Eagle Rock. Obviously, the tireless blues workhorse had a change of heart, or as the title of studio album number 57 suggests, the man is Tough.
This is meat-and-potatoes Mayall. Self-produced by the singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, with co-production credits for Michael Aarvold and Mayall’s wife Maggie, who also adds emphatic bluesy backing vocals to a number of songs, Tough is a no-messin’, sinewy blues-rock album made up of 11 comfort-zone cuts and brought in at well under an hour. The disc offers fluid, controlled guitar work that never outstays its welcome from Rocky Athas, 15-year Bluesbreaker veteran Buddy Whittington’s replacement, a tight backbeat provided by returning bassist Gregg Rzab and new drummer Jay Davenport, whilst stalwart Bluesbreakers keyboardist Tom Canning lets his left hand loose once again.
From the get-go, it’s apparent that Mayall’s voice, never his strongest feature, has worn with age. But this is not to the singer’s detriment on the majority of tracks here. In fact, the bluesman’s fragile, tenebrous vocal stylings fit the mood perfectly on sombre, questioning songs like opener “Nothing to Do with Love” as he probes the futility of going to war in the name of religion, or the excellent, atmospheric country-blues of “How Far Down”, where Mayall’s fractured voice and acoustic guitar begin the search for the depths a junkie will fall before he hits rock bottom, just as Athas’s scything solo cuts in.
However, the bandleader’s vocals fare less well on some of the more upbeat numbers. For example, it’s an uphill struggle for the singer to rise above the staccato bass licks and the two dueting Hammond organs played by Mayall and Canning on the funky “Just What You’re Looking For”, while the searing organ and scuzzy electric guitar on blues rocker “Train to My Heart” leaves him way down the line. Then there is “Numbers Down”, which would have been better off taken out and buried at the crossroads where blues rock meets pop.
Overall, Tough is a solid album, albeit a non-adventurous one, from a spirited veteran bluesman who still has things to say and songs to sing.