Anyone looking at the lineup of country, folk, bluegrass and hiphop artists appearing at Exhibition Place for the Toronto Bluesfest (July 16-25) might be left wondering where all the real blues went. Well, you'll find it with some bonus rhythm over at the Horseshoe, where genuine Detroit R&B legend Nathaniel Mayer will be tearing up the joint with songs from his forthcoming album for Fat Possum, due in October.
For the 60-year-old Mayer - a former labelmate of Andre Williams at Fortune Records, which released Mayer's first national chart smash, Village Of Love, back in '62 - the as yet untitled new disc is just the latest phase of a comeback process that began three years ago when garage bands like Austin's Hard Feelings and the Detroit Cobras started covering his tunes.
However, the real turning point came with a chance meeting with ex-Cobras guitarist Jeff Meier, whose current delinquent pastime, the Shanks, now does double duty as Mayer's powerhouse backing band. It's the greasy garage sound of the Shanks that's introducing Mayer's hip-shaking magic to the youngest audience he's seen since Detroit got torched.
"At the time I met Jeff at a show here in Detroit," recalls Mayer, still groggy after being rudely awakened by a ringing phone at 4 pm, "I wasn't doing too much singing any more. Now and then I'd do a gig in Chicago or Toledo, but I'd mostly just play little shows in town.
"When I got a call to play the Ottawa Blues Fest last summer, a couple of my regular guys couldn't make it, so I called Jeff and came up with his band, the Shanks, instead. That worked out great, and we've been together ever since."
Fortunately, Matthew Johnson and Bruce Watson at Fat Possum recognized the chemistry and used the Shanks for Mayer's recording session, which proved to be a swingin' affair marked by classy arrangements and material well suited to the froggy growl that's become Mayer's hallmark.
Along with some updates of a few Fortune-era classics, Jack Oblivian wrote a fabulous new song, Satisfied Fool, with Mayer in mind, and Mayer contributes the stylishly salacious Stick It Or Lick It.
"Me and this girl were sitting in a bar drinkin' and clownin' - y'know, just having fun - when she got to talking about her boyfriend. She said she told him to stick it or lick it, and I got an idea.
"So I excused myself and walked over to the corner store to get a pen, and I started writing. I had a song in no time at all. Yep, Stick It Or Lick It."
But the real genius move was the inspired choice of covering John Lennon's I Found Out, from the Plastic Ono Band album. Although Mayer says he's a Beatles fan, the suggestion to revisit the overlooked Lennon blues stomper came from the president's office.
"Matthew said, 'Nate, there's a song by John Lennon called I Found Out that sounds like it was written for you to sing.' Now, I'm a fan of the Beatles - shit, who ain't a Beatles fan? - but I'd never heard that song before.
"At first I didn't think I could sing it - I guess it took me two days to learn it. Once I had it down we recorded it, and I think it came out all right. I'd say I Found Out is now my favourite John Lennon song."
Despite never being able to parlay the million-selling success of Village Of Love into fame and fortune like so many of his contemporaries at Motown, Mayer doesn't seem at all bitter about working much of the past three decades in relative obscurity.
"There's no doubt I would be much more popular today if I'd been with Motown, but maybe everything has worked out for the best. You know, a lot of people have never seen me perform, and there's some who know my records who thought I was dead.
"So, really, I'm just glad to be out there in the clubs still doin' it. I might not hit one out of the park again, but I'm happy to at least be back in the batter's box."