Recorded in Liverpool on July 19, 2003, John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers and Friends: 70th Birthday Concert captures Mayall,"the father of British blues" (as he's introduced), in spry and spirited shape, running through a set of recent and classic numbers with the help of some famous friends. He's backed by the current version of his Bluesbreakers band, but this is a group that changes personnel more often than a fast-food restaurant; former members went on to form such iconic bands as Fleetwood Mac and Cream. During the course of the two hour-plus show, Mayall is joined by two of his most famous alumni: former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor and the great Eric Clapton, who came to the Bluesbreakers after leaving the Yardbirds in the mid 1960s.
Eagle Rock's film of the concert gets off to a bit of a rocky start. The first three songs are performed by just Mayall and the Bluesbreakers and, frankly, they're a bit boring. "Southside Story" is not the kind of barn-burner one might open this kind of a show with; it's a little on the bland side, and Mayall looks, at first, rather uncomfortable. He stands awkwardly, sways a little, and doesn't seem quite sure how to get the crowd going. It's a tentative opening, and the two tracks that follow--"Kids Got the Blues" and "Dirty Water"--continue the same vibe; you keep waiting for the set to get exciting.
Things perk up considerably when Taylor makes his entrance. His first song with the band, "Somebody's Acting Like A Child," has nice, dirty funk feel to it; his solos on "Blues for the Lost Days" and "Walking on Sunset" are electrifying. His expert playing gives the show a lift; this 2003 incarnation of the Bluesbreakers has plenty of competent players, but none of them are terribly exciting, and as energetic as Mayall is (particularly considering his age), over the years, he has consistently proven to be only as good as his back-up.
Eric Clapton comes in at the halfway mark, and it's clearly the moment everyone's been waiting for--the crowd is immediately on their feet, thrilled by the notion of watching the two icons playing together for the first time in nearly four decades. They ease into Slowhand's section; the first song, "No Big Hurry," is a lovely, easy number with just Mayall on the organ and Clapton on the guitar. Chris Barber joins them for "Please Mr. Lofton," which also has an laid-back feel, but then the Bluesbreakers return for "Hideway," and that's when things get cooking.
The section of songs that follow is undoubtedly the highlight--Clapton, Mayall, and the Bluesbreakers performing the kind of classic rock/blues that made them famous. Clapton's guitar work is wicked on "All Your Love," even if Mayall's vocals are a little weak. Mayall's "Have You Heard" is a classic wailer, and Clapton's smooth solo brings the house down. Clapton takes the vocals on one of the all-time great blues songs, Willie Dixon's "Hoochie Coochie Man," and it is the concert's best single number. Clapton also sings lead on the great Sonny Thompson tune "I'm Tore Down" (which Clapton did on his terrific 1994 album From the Cradle); the horns swing, Clapton's voice growls, and it's pure fun.
Clapton leaves briefly as Mayall performs one more number with just the Bluesbreakers, "It Ain't Right" (it's the best of their performances, so the placement is wise); all of the guest stars join the band for the closing song, a ten-minute rave-up of J.B. Lenoir's "Talk Your Daughter," which gives everyone a chance to shine and brings the uneven but enjoyable show to a rousing conclusion.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
The 1.78:1 image is sharp and impressive throughout the show, with crisp detail work (particularly in tight close-ups of Clapton's guitar and Mayall's organ) and full, natural color (even under the blue scheme of the stage lighting). The entire hall is well-lit, in fact, giving us wide shots of the crowd that look just as good as the mediums and close-ups on stage. Contrast is good and grain is light, while the smooth camerawork has a nice depth of field.
Eagle Rock continues their hot streak of top-notch audio presentations with this DTS-HD Master Audio mix. As with their previous in-concert Blu-rays, the mix is full, rich, and immersive; center channel vocals are rich and clear, and instrumentation is evenly spread and dynamic. Audience applause and reactions surround the viewer, but never to a point of distraction. The only real complaint here is that the track isn't as bass-heavy as I might have liked; the music sounds great, but some numbers are somewhat lacking in low-end punch.
The disc also offers a much thinner LPCM stereo mix and an acceptable Dolby Digital 5.1 track.
The bonus section begins with three Bonus Tracks: "Grits Ain't Groceries", "Jacksboro Highway" and "California." These three songs opened the show and are performed by the Bluesbreakers without Mayall; without his considerable presence, we may as well just be watching a cover band in a dive bar. These numbers were left out of the main show for good reason; unless you're in the mood for a heavy dose of vanilla blues, skip over them.
The only bonus feature worth watching is the John Mayall Interview (12:03), in which he discusses the hiring of Clapton and his brief time with the group, the band's high turn-over, the hiring of Mick Taylor, and his role in the blues world. Rehearsal footage is interspersed, and Mayall has some great stories to tell; the only trouble with this extra is that it's over too quickly.
John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers and Friends: 70th Birthday Concert has got some great music in it, but this concert video would have benefited greatly from being shorter and tighter; plain and simple, the weakest material is right up front, so the show takes quite a bit of time (and help from its roster of guest stars) to get going. Once guitar legends Taylor and Clapton join in, however, it's a mighty good time.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.