Albert King: Live in Sweden [DVD]

Albert King
Image Entertainment

If you’re a fan of King’s, you’ll no doubt appreciate seeing him at extended length (even if he doesn’t perform “The Hunter”, though he does do “Born under a Bad Sign”). Still, especially as an introduction, this DVD is rather disappointing. It’s relatively short (just under an hour) and it only features only seven songs (albeit seven lengthy versions of those songs). It also intersperses an interview with Albert King between certain songs instead of putting it all together at the end (though, thankfully, the interview clips are listed as separate tracks that can be watched back-to-back or skipped). Indeed, he comes across well in the interview, as an unpretentious, straightforward entertainer not afraid to discuss his use of stage tricks or to admit some of his own weaknesses.

Mainly, I’d have to say that King’s performance at this televised 1980 concert isn’t as awe-inspiring as it might have been. The interview clips interspersed between the songs aren’t as distracting as one might imagine, in part because there isn’t a relentless momentum that carries and builds through the entire concert. And, of course, give the DVD’s editors credit for not randomly inserting the interviews between songs. When one song picks up immediately after the other, there’s no break. The interview clips come when King himself takes a breather and pauses for applause. Maybe if the performances themselves segued more unstoppably one into the other or were each more electrifying, I’d have more complaints about the weaving of interview and music and how the mood is broken each time that this happens. As it is, the performance itself doesn’t fully undercut the impression that this is a documentary as much as it is a taping of a full concert.

King, of course, has a voice that most singers would envy. Moreover, he has stage presence, eyes closed and swaying to the raindrop notes of “The Sky Is Crying” or the poor man’s dreams of a “Cadillac Assembly Line”. Or even when he steps back from the mike, nodding and tapping along to someone else’s guitar solo.

Which might be the root of the problem (the “someone else’s solo”, not the having stage presence): the solos and fancy work here are sometimes left to the fleet-fingered hotshots in King’s band (a full band by the way, the kind you’d expect from a blues artist whose biggest hits had been at Stax). Sure, they do some keen fretwork, but what made King so influential and popular was his expressive minimalism. Indeed, King’s influence and stature may be even greater among blues-loving rockers than among blues musicians themselves. While blues has always been — and still is — a genre filled with guitarists who (even if they never studied at Berklee) are virtuosos, rock has (in addition to Berklee-trained virtuosos) had more room for the non-technician.

So it was natural that King’s use of dense, simple riffs should have become so popular. He was, before the formal birth of rock, a blues artist who drew from and magnified those elements of his chosen genre that later white fans would also draw from and magnify.

And, when he closes the show with some of his own fretwork, the appeal is obvious. While not as fast or note-for-note dense as the solos from the young guns in his band, King’s work is the more powerful for the very way that note after note is sustained and built one on top of the other. If technically much simpler, King’s best work uses this building tension to make the whole piece seem as unchangeable and perfect as the bricks cemented together to make a wall. They feel inevitable, inevitable in a way that, say, Yngwie Malmsteen’s solos are not: because the simple riffs and notes are allowed to build, there is a direct power that sheer sped-up virtuosity of rhythms and counter-rhythms could never match. I just wish that he’d given more proof of those abilities here. Because, though he talks about feeling tired from years of touring in the interview, he still could work some of his trademark magic, even if it was only to close out a relatively sedate show!