John Mayall

Factory Theatre, April 2

Mayall res
Photo: Cristina Arrigoni.

Sydney audiences give standing ovations so routinely you’d think it was part of the cost of admission. Often they rise for an octogenarian to pay tribute to the past rather than to the performance just witnessed. Not with John Mayall. It was his two hours of ripping blues that generated the fervour rather than his history, even it that history does include being a key progenitor of British blues. His 1960s bands boasted Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce before Cream was formed, Peter Green, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood before Fleetwood Mac, Mick Taylor before the Rolling Stones, and the list goes on.

Mayall always played harmonica, keyboards and guitar and wrote songs, but he was primarily a singer and band-leader, and that remains the case at 81. If his current group may not equal the stunning one he brought to Sydney in 1971 (with trumpeter Blue Mitchell), it was still very good. It could skate across some grooves and dig into others, always with the suppleness and infectiousness that have been Mayall’s hallmarks.

Chicagoans Jay Davenport (drums) and especially Greg Rzab (bass) had all the requisite flexibility, restraint and sense of power held in reserve (until a barnstorming, if ragged, Room to Move). Texan guitarist Rocky Athas’s playing was more in the blues-rock idiom: dealing in solid blocks of sound where the others were inclined toward the liquid variant, although he did play a sizzling solo on The Sum of Something and a sweet one on Drifting Blues.

If Athas’s guitar playing could be equated to a multinational corporation, Mayall’s would be a cottage industry. It was homely, child-like and characterful compared with his more accomplished keyboard work. His voice, meanwhile, still had that distinctive, yearning, haunting quality of old, and his harmonica interludes were apposite and feisty. He may have been a copyist of the great African American blues artists when he started out, but some 60 years on he sounds as authentic as his idols.