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Smokin' Joe Kubek and Bnois King

Have Blues, Will Travel

(Alligator; US: 25 May 2010; UK: 25 May 2010)

Blues riffage extraordinaire

Smokin’ Joe Kubek and Bnois King want to have a good time. More important, they want you to have a good time. Guitar slingers in the Lonnie Mack tradition, they play rumbling boogie-rock blues designed to pack roadhouses, crowd dance floors, and set toes tapping. This strong set does exactly that. The riffs are scorching, the rhythms are rock solid, and the fretwork is as good as you’re likely to find. There’s nothing terribly deep about this music, but Have Blues, Will Travel may be just the thing to chase your blues away.


The pace is generally uptempo, with just a couple of exceptions. Kickoff tune “Have Blues, Will Travel” sets the tone both musically and thematically, with scorching guitar licks bursting from different speakers (Kubek on the left, King on the the right), and King relating a tale of woe involving his wife, his girlfriend, his job, the police, a mean-spirited judge. You quickly get the idea that things ain’t so good. The sorry tale is belied by King’s chipper delivery, however. There is indignation here, and exasperation, but not a great deal of pain: this is the blues as experienced by Wile E. Coyote.


The mood prevails as the songs shift through the bouncy heartbreak of “Got You Out of My Blood” to the effortless, cowbell-bangin’ boogie-woogie rock of “Out of Body, Out of Mind”. Not until “Ru4 Real?” do we return to the downtempo domain of pure blues, and even then it’s played for laughs. “You got Botox in your jaw, collagen in your lips”, King wails at his unnamed lady, “Silicone in your chest / Don’t tell me what’s in them hips”.


It’s all good fun, but after a while good fun wears thin and the listener starts wishing for something a little darker and grittier from these two extraordinary guitar players. Songs like “Payday in America” and “My Guitar” keep the loose, good-natured vibe going, but isn’t the blues supposed to be about pain? “Myspace or Yours?”, an undeniably fun song, is a jokey poke at techno-fads, filled with innuendo about hard drives and laptops.


Of the few serious songs on the record, “Shadows in the Dark” is a tale of near-infidelity that is played straight and is the better for it. Also strong is the penultimate tune,“Wishful Thinking”, featuring tasty slabs of powerful slide guitar that leave the listener wondering why there hasn’t been more of this all along.


Kubek and King have played together for over 20 years, and each of them logged plenty of years and miles before that playing with other people. This is their second record for Alligator, following 2008’s Blood Brothers, and their chemistry is palpable. They would be a delight to experience live: music like this is best enjoyed in a crowded bar with an expansive parquet dance floor. You can almost hear the crowd raising their glasses in response to a particularly witty verse or snazzy guitar lick. If you can’t get out tonight, this record is a pretty good substitute.

Rating:

DAVID MAINE is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006), Monster, 1959 (2008) and An Age of Madness (2012). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Esquire.com and NPR.com, among other outlets. He is a lifelong music obsessive whose interests range from rock to folk to hip-hop to international to blues. He currently lives in western Massachusetts, where he works in human services. Catch up with his blog, The Party Never Stops, at davidmaine.blogspot.com, or become his buddy on Facebook (or Twitter or Google+ or whatever you prefer) to keep up with reviews and other developments.


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