John Mayall,
Find a Way to Care
(Forty Below, 2015)

Webb Wilder,
Mississippi Moderne
(Landslide, 2015)

I have been known to complain a time or two about the health of modern electric blues, which in my sour diagnosis isn't good. No such complaints will be registered in the present instance. The two albums up for review do what they need to do and more. If only one of the artists thinks of himself primarily as a bluesman, each does the genre justice in his own way.

Englishman John Mayall, who has been around a very long time, is experiencing something of a career renaissance, or at least a new charge of creative inspiration. I reviewed his excellent (and aptly titled) A Special Life here on 30 August 2014. Find a Way to Care features, as did its predecessor, Mayall's tradition-inflected originals as well as carefully chosen blues classics and obscurities. When I say "classics," I mean pieces recognized for their superior quality by those who know their blues, but not beaten to recorded exhaustion. In other words, the likes of Lightnin' Hopkins' "I Feel So Bad," Muddy Waters' "Long Distance Call," Percy Mayfield's "The River's Invitation."

Some cuts showcase Mayall's too little remarked-upon skills as a keyboard player -- Charles Brown's "Drifting Blues," for one example, and his own wry, presumably autobiographical "Crazy Lady" -- overlooked no doubt because he made his reputation as a guitarist. On most numbers a small band consisting of Rocky Athas (guitars), Greg Rzab (bass) and Jay Davenport (drums) affords muscular support, fashioning a modern iteration of the hard but felt big-city sound of 1960s blues. A convincing vocalist, Mayall short-circuits any of the usual complaints about how white guys sing, or don't know how to sing, this African-American music. I'd as soon listen to Mayall and crew as just about any electric blues outfit around these days.

Those of us at the receiving end of for-review CDs read the accompanying promotional material for the solely utilitarian purpose of extracting essential facts. We don't expect to encounter any sparkling prose. These fine words, however, capture the aura his fans associate with independent spirit Webb Wilder: "I hate to use the word 'mature,'" Webb says. And so we shall not. Born more than 60 years ago in Hattiesburg, Webb Wilder is not mature. He is the last of the full-grown men, and the last of the boarding house people. He is a unique presence among the peasants. He is force for good, and a friend to animals.

Since his first album, released in 1986, Wilder has always exuded a sort of comic eccentricity. Photographs of him suggest the unlikely possibility of a rock 'n' roll Roscoe Holcomb. He's a classicist of Southern popular music, trafficking in rockabilly, garage rock, even British invasion as experienced by a Mississippi kid decades ago. Along with some appealingly down-to-earth originals, he covers the early Kinks' "I Gotta Move," perhaps as a kind of joke that turns on itself: Ray Davies from England composes an imitation blues from the American South, to be covered by a Southerner who grew up with the real thing. There's irony in this, obviously, not least in the thought that Davies would never write something like this in his artistic, er, maturity, but it's a decent song, and Wilder does it straightforwardly, and well.

At the same time Wilder lets us know he doesn't need to look across the ocean to have his roots handed back to him. Authentic blues from actual bluesmen (e.g., Otis Rush's "It Takes Time," Jimmy Reed's "I'm Gonna Get My Baby") receive authoritative, if Wilderized, treatments. Perhaps to underscore where this all starts, Mississippi Moderne opens and closes with the arcane spiritual "Stones in My Pathway" -- Robert Johnson reworked it as the secular blues "Stones in My Passway" -- with all the atmospherics of an Alan Lomax field recording.

Essentially, though, Wilder is a rock 'n' roller who plies his trade from a base in Nashville. There is, in truth, not a whole lot of country in his sound. Even the inspired cover of "Lonely Blue Boy," a 1960 rockabilly hit for Conway Twitty, emanates from Twitty's pre-country career. In contrast to many of his contemporaries, Wilder is not a blues-rocker but a rocker who knows blues and incorporates it into a larger electric-roots sensibility. Notwithstanding the jokiness that surrounds him (beginning with the name he gave his first band, the Beatnecks), he is a serious and accomplished guitarist/vocalist who recreates and redefines recognizable approaches in grounded, minimally embellished yet distinctive arrangements.

What he does for me, and why I enjoy this album so thoroughly, is that he reminds me of the charms of rock 'n' roll without indulging in cheap nostalgia. Even as he denies it, this is what the rock 'n' roll of distant youth sounds like when it's all grown up.

music review by
Jerome Clark

26 September 2015

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