This double CD from Castle combines two very different aspects of an outrageously complex man and artist. In order to display John Mayall's commitment to a band's development on the road, Rockin' the Roadshow combines one disc of live performances from the early '70s, with two different bands, one that included Harvey Mandel, Don "Sugarcane" Harris, Canned Heat's Larry Taylor, and Mayall without a drummer -- until track four anyway, when Paul Lagos joins them on-stage. Now, thinking of a blues band without a drummer, particularly an electric blues band, might seem a bit strange, but the nine tracks on this disc make a more than compelling case. The energy just crackles from the stage on tracks like "Crying," with Harris wailing for seven minutes without Mayall singing the lyrics. And then there's the scorching "Took the Car" (each of these tunes has an alternate version on disc two recorded with Lagos later on the tour), with Mandel and Mayall just tearing up the heart of the tune on guitar and harmonica, respectively. Before the live set goes any further, there is enough evidence here to prove to all those weird naysayers that Mayall was more than just a bandleader able to surround himself with good musicians; he was, and remains, a visionary in the blues tradition. He was restless then and is more so now. He still inspires his bandmates to these kinds of performances, even in the new millennium at age 70. "Blue Fox" brings in Lagos, and while the dimension of the band is deeper and wider, there's something less ghostly and spiritual about it all.
Not that the music here doesn't rock; this is a band that loved to jam and that was clearly its strong suit. In fact, many listeners may prefer the Lagos edition of the band, but that sparseness created a razor wire for the band to work out on. This is hard, tough, and jagged blues more akin to Cream than the normal Bluesbreakers style. Of course, when the band completely changes again later in the year and Blue Mitchell, Fred Clark, Keef Hartley, Freddy Robinson, and Victor Gaskin climb aboard, the vibe is far more groove-oriented, with jazz elements adding an awesome texture and dimension. Disc two is a far more "conventional" Bluesbreakers album, entitled Road Show Blues and issued on the DJM label in 1981. Most folks haven't heard it because it was never in print in the U.S., but it remains one of Mayall's finest efforts from the 1980s with a slew of new originals, one by his hero J.B. Lenoir ("Mama Talk to Your Daughter"), and some live tracks, Jimmy Reed's "Baby What Do You Want Me to Do" and "Mexico City." Here the band burns with the same intensity that the 1970s bands did. Add the alternate takes of the material from disc one and you have a stellar collection that has a rawness and immediacy sorely lacking from much of the blues today. To boot, there are copious liner notes by Neil Slaven with extensive quotes from Mayall. A fine compilation to be sure.