John Mayall's lengthy, ever-growing discography is so littered with reissues of various sorts that it may not be readily apparent that he continues to make new albums regularly, about one every couple of years. Since Tough, recorded and released in 2009 when Mayall was 75 years old, is his follow-up to 2007's In the Palace of the King, which was billed as his 56th LP, that would make it his 57th. Unlike its predecessor, a tribute to Freddie King, Tough has no particular theme. It is simply a representative collection of songs in various blues and blues-rock styles, played and sung by Mayall with a band including long-serving keyboardist Tom Canning, guitarist Rocky Athas, and bassist Greg Rzab. Athas gets to make like Jimi Hendrix on the hard rocker "Train to My Heart," and takes a blistering solo on the closer, "The Sum of Something," which also gives Canning an organ feature. Mayall has personal reflections to make on some of his original compositions. "Slow Train to Nowhere," which highlights his piano playing, is also a cautionary tale about recovering from bad behavior. "Tough Times Ahead" is concerned with the economic crisis that gripped the world in the run-up to the recording sessions in March 2009: "Banks are closing daily, and recession's coming back again." And "That Good Old Rockin' Blues" is the songwriter's defense of the music he loves in the face of trendier styles. "I hate rap music with a passion that you've never seen," he declares. That's no surprise. And Tough won't surprise anyone who has heard even a few of Mayall's earlier recordings. At 75, he just keeps on playing the blues.
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AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann