Friday, September 12, 2008
B.B. King's Indian summer masterpiece
"One Kind Favor"
B.B. King - born on Sept. 16, 1925, in the mile-square hamlet of Itta Bena, Miss. -- keeps traveling the globe as a living link to the roots of the blues, still working when others would be fishing. He has attained fiscal success his long-gone Delta peers and forebears could never have imagined, but King happily plays one-nighters, revisiting the Old South right now. The road takes him to Atlantic City in November.
For all the big audiences and celebrity collaborators, King has always kept the sound of his predecessors inside him. Back in 1961, the budding star paid tribute to a gutbucket tradition with "My Kind of Blues," still one of his best LPs. His new album - "One Kind Favor," perhaps the peak of a mountainous discography - pays homage to such blues pioneers as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leroy Carr and the Mississippi Sheiks. Moreover, it's attuned to a classic, mostly live-in-the-studio way of making records. The feel is woody, the vibe a little voodoo.
"One Kind Favor" was helmed by studio shaman T-Bone Burnett, who also worked such magic for the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss album and the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack. Burnett's crew includes players who know what records sounded like before computers -- Dr. John on piano, Jim Keltner on drums. King's vocals were captured with a gritty, conspiratorial tone, like an elder letting loose after church, a jam jar full of whisky in his hand. His guitar has sting, too. In "Get These Blues Off Me" - one of several tunes from the repertoire of Texas guitar-slinger T-Bone Walker -- King's single-string runs burn like an unwelcome memory.
Walker's soul-weary ballad "Waiting for Your Call" is another highlight, as King's chest swells with emotion, the horns sliding down behind him like bitter tears. As with Walker, the suave virtuoso Lonnie Johnson was a key influence on King's art from the start. He pushes Johnson's "My Love Is Down" with defiant, deep-blues feeling, his voice growling, his leads pealing. On Johnson's touching ballad "Tomorrow Night," King finally sounds his age, but it feels right; the singer indulges his vibrato as if an old romantic making a hand-in-hand plea, with Dr. John rolling the ivories like the ideal wing man.
Opposed to the slickness that could mar King's discs in the past, this album's arrangements feel intimate and handmade, including grainy double-bass. There are funky, after-hours jams ("World Gone Wrong" by 1930s hit-makers the Mississippi Sheiks), as well as slow-rolling laments ("Backwater Blues," made famous by Bessie Smith when King was a little boy). Burnett made a beautiful frame for it all, but King's presence is always the center attraction, a picture both regal and deeply human.
Speaking about "One Kind Favor," King has said, "People kept asking me when I was going to record something else with Eric Clapton or U2, but I decided I didn't want to anything with partners for a little while. I can still do things by myself, you know."