The blues may be called the "classical" music of America. It takes many forms, but all those forms depend on the fusion of African cultures with European in our particular historical and geographical context. Jazz is often called America's music, and its ineffable cool is incorporated into more traditionally structured Euro-classical scores, but the basis of jazz is the blues, and the root of the blues was fed in a soil of work and suffering, watered with sweat and libations until it became a thing of mystical power, a thing to conjure with..
The mystical, emotive, and rhythmic power of the blues in its early forms attracted untold numbers of followers, many of whom created new hybrid genres based in the blues. Among these acolytes and evangelists were, most surprisingly, some white boys from pre-multicultural Britain who had never sweated in a field but who knew a little about labor and hard times and for whom the long mournful slide guitar licks of Delta blues, by way of Chicago, resounded like nothing else ever had.
Early among these Brits was John Mayall. Mayall, who was born in 1933 in the Cheshire town of Macclesfield, formerly famous for its silk-weaving industry, is commonly credited with starting the British blues boom. His first album, Bluesbreakers, released in 1965 and featuring Eric Clapton on guitar and Jack Bruce on bass, certainly burst upon an unsuspecting world like a flaming asteroid that rearranges the landscape and changes the weather. The band has grown, shrunk, and morphed over the years, many of its "graduates" going on to form stellar bands of their own. Now styling himself as the Godfather of British Blues, Mayall has recently been named Officer of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth, and is, at age 72, touring with the current incarnation of his Bluesbreakers band and two other bluesmen with a show called the "Rockin' Blues Revue," which they brought to Durham's Carolina Theatre on November 9.
In any art, you find the genius of new creations, the explorers who mine the variations of a style — and then you have the devolution into derivative production, where the art refers to prior art or artists rather than welling out of primary emotion. Interestingly, if disappointingly, the Rockin' Blues Revue gave us some of each.
The show opened with a short set by the talented, warm-voiced Eric Bibb, working in a Piedmont blues style. He began with a fine version of the old song "Stagolee," finger-picking his acoustic guitar for a lovely ringing sound. But then he played some of his own songs, most of which were much less compelling, including one about B.B. King. He ended his set with a return to the classics – a beautiful rendition of the Rev. Gary Davis' "Heard the Angels Singing."
Following Bibb was genre-crossing electric guitarist Robben Ford, backed by the Bluesbreakers: Joe Yuele on drums, Hank Van Sickle, bass, and Buddy Whittington, guitar. Ford is a fancy guitarist, quite a bit too slick for my taste, and when he launched into "Cannonball Shuffle," a song about the late Texas bluesman Freddie King, I began to get irritated. But then he and the band roared into the Willie Dixon tune "It Don't Make Sense" and showed they did still have that blues feeling. It wasn't until Ford left the stage, however, that we finally got to hear some slide guitar (Whittington is awesome when unleashed) as the Bluesbreakers rocked through a blistering version of "You Upset Me Baby," which reverberated in every bone.
The star of the show was a bit of a let-down, musically, if an amazement, physically. It is very hard to believe this man is 72 except for the fact that he seems to have run through his song-writing powers. He opened at the keyboard with the self-referential "Road Dogs," the title cut from his new CD, about himself and the band and their life on the road, which was even worse than the earlier songs about other musicians. The topical ditty "Chaos in the Neighborhood" was no better. The further the songs went back in time, the better they got, and Mayall on guitar was far more satisfying than Mayall on the keyboard. And he really shone on harmonica, vibrating plaster off the ceiling as he wailed long and loud on "Burning Bridges."
Ford and Bibb returned to the stage for the finale, and it was only on this last song that the concert reached my expectations. The Rockin' Blues Revue has been on the road for quite a while, with many more dates to play, and they've got the show down awfully pat. But finally, at the very last, they were jamming as Bibb led them in the great song, "Don't Let Nobody Turn You 'Round," proving that the classics can be ever-fresh and that the blues retains its mystical power long generations after its first flowering.