Forty years ago as Beatlemania was engulfing the planet, and the British Invasion was gearing up to cross the Atlantic, a powerful undercurrent of alternative sounds and ideas was creeping through English music circles. While bands such as the Stones, Kinks, and Who were in the early stages of development as rock bands, a growing contingent of artists were gravitating towards a more organic brand of music. Led in large part by the talented visionaries Alexis Korner and John Mayall, the British Blues movement was to sprout roots and quickly become a formidable musical force. Cutting and pasting elements of American blues and even jazz, Mayall brought his group the Bluesbreakers to the forefront of the burgeoning genre, creating some memorable recordings and launching the careers of several soon to be high profile musicians.
The twin CD set of Best of British Blues pays homage to the contributions of Mayall and his compatriots, as well as offering valuable glimpses of lesser known, but no less important, artists that played roles in the 1960’s English Blues scene.
As Mayall is considered the progenitor of the blues tidal wave, each disc features a trio of songs from the Bluesbreakers. What makes the inclusions so fascinating is that they are studies in variation and comparison. The guitar work of Eric Clapton, Peter Green, and Mick Taylor are all exemplary, but possess differing nuances; distinct technical traits that would identify each player later in their respective futures.
While Mayall specific material is most prevalent on each disc, the two dozen combined tracks offer a broad brushstroke of performers: Pre-Woodstock Ten Years After sits prominently beside early Cream; Jethro Tull shares space with the Peter Green incarnation of Fleetwood Mac; Paul Rodgers-led Free shines along with Savoy Brown. Additionally, vintage blues classics and original material are tackled with equal aplomb throughout. Of particular note are the Alvin Lee & Co. cover of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me”, Fleetwood Mac’s take on Little Willie John’s “Need Your Love So Bad”, and the Peter Green penned “Rattlesnake Shake”.
Much of the set’s value comes by way of inclusion of more obscure acts such as Taste, Groundhogs, and Climax Chicago Blues Band. Not only does the work of these groups provide a necessary counterbalance to that of the more popular artists, but it also evidences the incestuous nature of the mid-‘60s English music world. Prior to forming Cream with Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker were members of the jazz/blues outfit, Graham Bond Organisation; Mick Taylor joined the Rolling Stones after his tenure with Mayall; John McVie and Mick Fleetwood would part ways with Green to morph their group into the Stevie Nicks fronted ‘70s arena behemoth, bringing along Chicken Shack keyboardist Christine Perfect; Tull guitarist Mick Abrahams went on to form the short lived Blodwyn Pig; Savoy Brown members would eventually found Foghat; Rodgers and drummer Simon Kirke were to leave Free and anchor Bad Company.
All together, the double CD set serves as a solid introduction into British Blues 101. For newcomers to the genre, a healthy education will be gleaned from both volumes. For those with more discerning tastes, much of the presented material will be recognizable, but the rarer offerings will compensate for that familiarity. In either case, Best of British Blues is a worthwhile, and illuminating trip back into the past.