BB. King once said that “the blues is an expression of anger against shame and humiliation”. Given the source of this definition (that amiable gentle giant and reigning king of the Memphis blues), there is little doubt that all too often this simple folk form has been unfairly subjugated to the artistic aspirations of those who have sought to appropriate and sanitize its identity. It would seem that the blues means less now than it did 50 years ago, rendered impotent by the faces of modern musical anger: gangsta rap and hardcore industrial metal.
Yet there is still one argument that maintains credibility against this notion: it is up to the artist to stay true to the form. In this sense, then, there is little need to explain how B.B. King has become a touchstone for so many artists seeking to identify themselves with the roots of the Memphis blues. U2, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson and so many others have made the pilgrimage to stand onstage and perform with King in the hope of gaining insight to the secret of his longevity and his gift for belting the blues like few others. It is amazing to think that even at the age of 76, he still maintains an insatiable appetite for recording and performing.
King’s personal journey as an artist mirrors the dissemination of this unique American art form, from the street corners of Memphis and the endless dusty back roads of the deep South’s “Chitlin Circuit” of dives and juke joints to 50,000-seat sports arenas and the great and courtly concert halls of Europe. Armed with his constant companion, his lovingly named Gibson electric “Lucille”, King has recorded over 50 solo albums and has made countless appearances as a guest and sideman on so many others. For all intents and purposes, he is one of the last of his kind: an honest-to-goodness bluesman.
Here and There: The Uncollected B.B. King is an effort to corral a handful of tracks that have appeared on a number of different compilations, solo recordings released by other artists, and (in two instances) previously unreleased solo material. While far from being a definitive collection, or at times even cohesive, Here and There does offer up some rare gems and memorable performances. Unfortunately, the disc opens with the two weakest tracks of this retrospective, “Caught a Touch of Your Love” (a duet with saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. from his 1987 Columbia release Strawberry Moon) and “Monday Morning Blues” (a cut from the Garfield: Am I Cool or What? Soundtrack). While King’s voice and guitar ring true to form, the tracks themselves suffer from an overall sense of sterilized studio production. Contrary to what these tracks would lead you to believe, there is little use for drum machines and synthesizers when it comes to the blues.
However, following these two forgettable picks is one of the pearls of this collection, a previously unreleased version of “All You Ever Give Me Is the Blues”. Recorded in 1991, it is the epitome of B.B. King’s renowned style and has been a staple of King’s live repertoire for many years. The track exudes a rough-and-ready attitude with a four-beat drumstick countoff and the scuffling of muted electrified guitar strings in the background. Here, and later on with another unreleased treasure “Yes Man” (which stems from the same 1991 recording session), the passion in King’s characteristic blues shout is unmistakably genuine. Where his voice drops out, Lucille is quick to chime in with enough authority and attitude to put any street-corner preacher to shame.
The disc is also infused with a healthy dose of B-3 organ, a notable presence via Jimmy Smith’s down-and-dirty Hammond work on King’s classic “Three O’Clock Blues” and Paul Shaffer on the title track to vibraphonist Gary Burton’s 1992 album Six Pack. As counterpoint, commentary and support for King’s vocals, the effect is thrilling.
And speaking of thrills, the collection includes a duet version of “The Thrill Is Gone”, one of King’s signature numbers. Taken from Willie Nelson’s recent Milk Cow Blues, the cut has some solid guitar work and a solid feel but Nelson’s nasal vocal warbling stands in naked contrast to King’s powerful blues bravado. The pairing of these two legends of their own particular genres is unusual to say the least and is certain to amuse even the staunchest fans of either artist.
King’s versatility as a performer is a highlight of Here and There as well, exemplified by his recording of “Stormy Monday Blues” with the GRP All-Star Big Band (featuring the impressive combined talents of Arturo Sandoval, Randy Brecker, Tom Scott, Bob Mintzer and Ramsey Lewis among others). King also has a chance to let his formidable guitar chops fly in a vicious yet playful duel with Texas guitar legend Albert Collins on his traditional showstopper “Frosty”, which was recorded in 1993, just a few months before Collins passed away.
It is incredible to think that B.B. King has been working his Memphis mojo for over 60 years. Just in terms of sheer longevity, he has led a life that could count for the careers of two different bluesmen. While this collection suffers from not having any real sense of cohesive unity, it still stands as a strong testimony to the talent King has to share as well as his integral role in the development and the continuation of the American blues tradition.
// Notes from the Road
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