Now 83, John Mayall has been making records for more than 50 years now and though he’s probably never banged down the door of the younger set and experienced the kind of visibility that has caused his name to be whispered with hushed reverence among those who adore adoring elder statesmen, that’s never stopped him from chasing the next great performance or delivering his goods. He does have a dedicated audience, one that’s eager to celebrate his present and future as much as it’s aware of his past. This 11-song collection finds him in fine form and spirits as he offers up a series of soul-slathered tunes that reveal a lifetime of grit and sweat.
The veteran bluesman gets topical in “The Devil Must Be Laughing”, which features some career-high fret work from Joe Walsh. Taking up matters of political and religious extremism, the lyrics are heartfelt and given a passionate workout across more than six simmering minutes of anger and frustration. If the heat gets to be a bit much after that, Mayall takes us to New Orleans for “Gimme Some of That Gumbo” with a playfulness that few performers could muster. “Goin’ Away Baby”, meanwhile, sounds like it could have been recorded either 70 years ago or within the last few minutes, walking the fine line between tradition and breaking new ground in a manner only Mayall could pull off.
The truth is that he excels at the more stripped-down and traditional approach. The clear-eyed “I Didn’t Mean to Hurt You” relaxes into its groove, allowing the singer to find the melody’s sweet spots and to convey the tune’s emotional truths with an honesty that helps elevate it all above cliché. The jaunty closer “You Never Know” offers more of this and its casual pace easily makes it one of the must-hear tracks from this litter. There are other highlights, of course, including the large ensemble stride of “Don’t Deny Me” and the stark raving fun of “Across the County Line”.
Of less interest is the Clapton-meets-Boz Scaggs “Blue Midnight”. Though it doesn’t sound insincere, it sounds less like Mayall being himself than the better cuts. “Cards on the Table” features more ace playing from Walsh, though the slide playing there overwhelms from the start, creating unnecessary competition between the vocals and the six-string and ultimately derailing an otherwise strong number. Still, hearing Mayall strut proudly on “It’s Hard Going Up”, and the title tune gives us more than enough reason to listen.
The former piece sets its lyrical sites on a familiar music business expression about meeting the same faces on the way down as one does on the way up. It speaks to Mayall’s longevity, too, his role as a musical mentor and reliable post in the blues world, one that’s never soared to unfathomable heights but one that has also managed to remain strong in the game while others struggled. Tenacity and class may be the two things that have kept Mayall strong all these years, and both are in ample supply here.
In the end, Talk About That is proof positive that Mayall maintains his standing in the pantheon of great bluesmen whose sense of soul and purpose is indefatigable. Long may he run.
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