Celebrating his 80th birthday this year, British blues legend John Mayall still relishes touring and performing the music he has loved ever since he was a kid.
"Blues has always kept me going well," says Mayall. "It's definitely stimulating, a very alive music. My music is very honest and people recognize that as well as it being exciting and stimulating. As long as you've got good health and energy it keeps you going."
Acclaimed as the godfather of Britain's blues-rock movement, in his early days Mayall fronted an amazing array of talent including Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce, who went on to form Cream, future Rolling Stone guitarist Mick Taylor, and Fleetwood Mac's Peter Green, John McVie and Maui's own Mick Fleetwood.
Rocky Athos (from left), John Mayall, Greg Razb and Jay Davenport will rock the Maui Arts & Cultural Center on May 16.
Photo courtesy the MACC
Slack key guitarist Makana performed at Honua Kai Resort & Spa in Kaanapali, a sponsor of his latest project.
The Maui News / CARLA TRACY photo
"I was hooked from the age of 10 or 11 years old, listening to blues and boogie woogie from my father's record collection," Mayall recalls. "It was something I never thought people would be interested in. For years I plugged away at what I loved to do - playing blues - but there was nobody there to listen to it until I was 30, when Alexis Korner and Cyril Davis kicked off the whole thing (the U.K. blues movement). I played it just the same as now, for the love of it, and now I have an audience and respect."
A move to London led to the formation of the legendary Bluesbreakers in 1963. And when a young Eric Clapton left the Yardbirds, disenchanted with the group's pop direction, Mayall snapped him up. In the spring of 1966, the Bluesbreakers released their self-titled debut album to wide acclaim. This landmark recording is recognized as the first classic British blues album, and it made Clapton and Mayall stars.
For the next few years, Mayall's Bluesbreakers acted as a sort of finishing school for many of Britain's rock elite. When Clapton departed the Bluesbreakers in mid-1966, he was replaced by another tremendous guitarist, Peter Green, who would in turn be replaced by Mick Taylor.
In 1968, Mayall performed at a festival in Holland with Jimi Hendrix, Steve Winwood and Eric Burdon. The teaming was captured in a historic photo available online.
"That's a pretty famous photo," he explains. "It was a one off thing, a hell of a long show. Jimi sat in with us many times on gigs. He would constantly show up and take over Taylor's guitar and join in.
That same year, Mayall released the landmark album "Bare Wires," which featured an innovative, 22-minute suite of music.
"Critics didn't think very much of it and it didn't sell more than any of my other albums, which was modestly," he reveals. "I had a great time composing the music and had great musicians on it."
Mayall released another imaginative recording, "Blues From Laurel Canyon," later in 1968, after his first trip to America.
"It was my impression of three weeks vacation in L.A.," he notes. "I spent part of my time living in Frank Zappa's famous Laurel Canyon house, and put all the stories into one suite. It was an extension of the idea I had with 'Bare Wires,' to do one, long story."
Living in the U.S. since the early 1970s, Mayall has explored the blues in various configurations, continually attracting some of the best players.
His excellent 1993 release, "Wake Up Call," included help from Albert Collins, Buddy Guy and Mavis Staples, while "Padlock on the Blues" featured John Lee Hooker and Ernie Watts.
In 2001, he invited a few former bandmates and fellow peers to contribute to the album, "Along for the Ride." This historic grouping of respected musicians included Taylor, Green, McVie and Fleetwood, as well as Steve Miller, ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, and guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Duck Dunn from the legendary Booker T and the MGs and the Blues Brothers Band.
Two years later, Mayall celebrated his 70th birthday with a special concert in Liverpool, England, which featured some of his former Bluebreakers compatriots including Clapton and Taylor.
"It was fabulous," he says. "It was like no time at all had passed."
Mayall's current stellar band features former Black Oak Arkansas guitarist Rocky Athas; bassist Greg Rzab, who backed blues legends such as Buddy Guy, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker and Junior Wells; Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page; and Chicago-born drummer Jay Davenport, who worked with Junior Wells, Pinetop Perkins and Jimmie Johnson.
"It's marvelous," he says about the group. "The energy level is so high, it's really a treat."
In the last couple of years, the veteran artist has been releasing concert albums in a "Historic Live Show" series, featuring music recorded between the 1970s and 1990s. While Amazon lists his collective output at around 115 albums, he explains he's recorded about 60 official albums.
"The rest are all these compilations and re-issues, which I don't really count. They just seem to crop up all over the place. I was in London last week in HMV (music store) and there was a CD of mine that somebody had put out, which I was never told about. It was another bootleg under the guise of being an official album."
Reflecting on his historic career, this acclaimed musician feels kind of proud that he helped popularize one of America's greatest art forms.
"I'm very glad I was part of the history and the beginning of the whole British blues movement," he says. "Over the passage of time, you come to appreciate the part that you played in it, and appreciate the part a lot of other people played in it."
* The John Mayall Band plays at 7:30 p.m. May 16 at Maui Arts & Cultural Center's Castle Theater. British guitarist Kim Simmonds, co-founder of the legendary Savoy Brown band, will open the show. Tickets are $45, $50 and $55. For ticket info, call 242-7469.
The annual Maui Classical Music Festival will close with a concert at Makena's Keawala'i Congregational Church at 7 p.m. Friday. This grand finale "Rags to Riches with three Hawaii Premieres" concert includes works by Mendelssohn, Mozart, Verdi and Stravinsky.
The program features Mendelsssohn's "On Wings of Song and May Breezes for Viola and Piano," Hanson's Concerto da Camera in C for Piano and String Quartet," Thompson's "Alleluia" for String Quartet (arranged by Ying Quartet), Novacek's "Three Rags for String Quartet," Mozart's "Viola Quintet in G minor, K. 516," Boccherini's "Sonata in A for Viola and Piano," Stravinsky's "Suite Italienne for Violin and Piano," Wolf's "Italian Serenade in G for String Quartet," and Verdi's "String Quartet in E Minor."
* Suggested donation is $25 for adults and $10 for students.
Like many young artists these days looking to record albums, Makana turned to the Kickstarter fan fundraising site for his latest project.
"It's better than taking out a loan or selling your soul to a record label," he explains. "Labels these days want 360 deals, meaning they get a piece of everything you do in your career, which is a nightmare."
Having previously self-produced six records, Makana hooked up with world-class producer Ron Nevison, who began his career engineering albums by the Who ("Quadrophenia") and Led Zeppelin ("Physical Graffiti"). As a producer, Nevison's credits include Jefferson Starship, Heart, Chicago, Kiss, Ozzy Osbourne and Damn Yankees.
Through his Kickstarter campaign Makana offered some cool rewards to prospective donors, and that's how he came to recently play a private concert at the Honua Kai Resort & Spa in Kaanapali.
The resort offered to help sponsor the project, pledging enough money for Makana to present an intimate solo show there.
"They pledged the highest, and they will get executive producer credit on the record," Makana notes. "It was a really nice concert."
Other rewards offered to folks pledging various amounts included the innovative musician playing "guitar or ukulele on a song on your album," playing for anyone proposing marriage, to "seal the deal," having him "do a YouTube cover of your favorite song," and having Makana, "compose a song just for you."
It worked. He raised more than $60,000.
"People really stepped up, it was really amazing," he says.
The new album, "Manic," will be released in the summer. "The title track is like a combination of Billy Joel, Elton John and the Beatles," he adds. "It's a really diverse record."
* Makana will next perform on Maui at the Four Seasons Resort's Vintage Wine Weekend on May 26.