You can’t really go wrong by opening up any record with John Hiatt’s “Ridin with the King.” Any album that might open this way has already won my musical heart. Of course, if two blues masters like B.B. King and Eric Clapton take on Hiatt’s brilliant tribute, I can just turn off my CD player at the end of track one.
I fell a bit pulled in reviewing Riding with the King. I really love B.B. King…and I really dislike Eric Clapton. I’m not sure if I could meaningfully explain these feelings, but both sensations run deep. Luckily, Riding with the King helps to temper the distance between these tastes of mine. Most of the tracks grow from a relatively straight blues sensibility (and less from some of the cheese that blues master Clapton has been prone to produce). The songs on Riding with the King are all either covers or penned by King. Clapton seems to be more of a studio hand here, at least in terms of the music itself, though he definitely takes more of accolades in the media. In terms of press, Riding with the King appears like a Clapton album done with King. But listening to all the tracks, King is the boss. Clapton just plays along. (Maybe part of my dislike of Clapton has more to do with marketing, audience, and public attention rather than his music itself.) While Clapton seems to take the media spotlight on this album and King straightens up its blues backbone, Riding with the King is a virtual cornucopia of musical talent scattered all about the album. Jimmie Vaughan shows his chops on “Help the Poor” for example, while throughout Joe Sample keeps the Rhodes humming and Steve Gadd lays it down like he always does. King is the centerpiece, the voice, the solos, at bottom, he is the blues. But Master of the Stratocaster Clapton throws in licks and solos so sweet and smooth that you forget the music you’re hearing.
If you want low down dirty blues, go get a Fat Possum record. If you like a strong blues cocktail, you’ll get knocked in the head here with one part Mr. Clapton slickness mixed with three parts of Mr. King’s blues stature. If you like drinks like this, you’ll love this album. Somewhere, I think I was hoping to hear something more lo-fi, something more like a backporch collaboration. But after just a couple of listens, Riding with the King gives me so much more. These two old hands can swing, croon, rock, pick, and even funk it up a little. You get it all here, and without any cheese!
(Good to hear these two old guys singing songs like “Days of Old,” whose chorus, as best I can make out goes, quite simply, “We’re gonna ball tonight!” That’s spirit!)