Born Under a Blues Sign” I don’t turn on Korn to get it on/
I be playin’ Jimi Hendrix ’til the dawn/
That’s my word is bond/
Sittin’ up on my front lawn/
Got the volume turned to 10/
Playin’ Albert King the best again
— Mos Def, “Rock ‘N’ Roll”
Talking Blues kicks off with a rollicking live version of “Born under a Bad Sign”, a prophetic tune if there ever was one for Albert King. Long recognized for revolutionizing blues guitar tradition by those who practice, appreciate, and study that distinctly American genre, King still remains only the second most famous bluesman with that last name (B.B. King being the first). And while B.B. King is still alive to reap the long-deserved benefits of commercial endorsements from companies like Burger King and Sak’s Fifth Avenue, Albert sadly passed away in 1992, late enough to get his props from guys like Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and Stevie Ray Vaughan — who all openly admitted to emulating his juicy riffs — but still too early to firmly inscribe his name in the post-20th century popcultural landscape.
But Albert took his last name from B.B. King after the latter’s “Three O’Clock Blues” became a hit (the former’s real last name was Nelson), which tells you a bit about blues culture — its braggadocio (that would help form the foundation of funk and hip-hop), its shared mission, its sincere desire to make a name for itself in a predominantly white dominant culture. Albert accomplished much of this after leaving legendary Stax Records in the mid-’70s, but by then disco, funk, and the Sugarhill Gang were moving street music away from the guitar, Albert’s signature instrument, to the beat and the bass. Even now, in our new Pro Tools-dominated millennium, it takes a conscious, committed cat like Mos Def to even drop his name on a hip-hop joint, even though Albert helped shift the culture smoothly forward. After all, we’re talking about a left-handed guitarist who, unlike Hendrix, didn’t even bother to restring his axe; he just played it the way it was made, bending downward rather than upward when he needed a pitch change. The fact that American pop culture can still neglect something amazing like that while Clapton makes millions on tour is a brain-teaser than can drive musicologists to drink.
But Thirsty Ear’s refreshing release feels like a solution to that ever-present conundrum. Half a live set delivered forcefully to the Chicago faithful in 1978 and half a sermon on the blues to Thirsty Ear’s label manager, Peter Gordon, Talking Blues turns out to be King’s sonic dissertation on what the form is all about. “I tell all young groups that’s playing, be sure to add some blues sound to your music,” he explains on the disc. “Don’t miss that, if you intend to stay in the business long. Because if you don’t, you’ll be copping behind someone else and you’ll soon run out of ideas. And it’ll all be over for you.” The blues, as he explains, “is all in your head.”
But it’s also all on the fretboard, when it comes to King’s work, and Talking Blues features some of his blistering best. “I’ll Play the Blues for You” is an incendiary, horn-saturated romp stacked with meaty fills that King slows down just enough to allow him to interact playfully with his appreciative audience. “You’re a very pretty girl, where you live?” he asks one attendee, right before excusing himself and launching into a fiery solo that Clapton based his entire career around. The aforementioned “Born under a Bad Sign” is an interactive barnburner, crackling with audience energy and King’s hard-luck baritone and raucous chops.
But one of King’s strengths has always been the slow burn, and there are a few on this album that really fit the bill. “The Very Thought of You” careens between Otis Redding soul and King’s standard blues jam, while the eleven-minute “Please Come Back to Me” is an over-the-top, epic elegy for a lost love, filled with King’s left-handed dexterity. “Blues at Sunrise” is a simmering, sweaty classic; King even relays the song’s backstory — one that name drops the underrated Buddy Miles and the well-known Janis Joplin — while he’s playing it.
And it’s that historical bent that makes Talking Blues a collector’s item. Hearing King play is one thing, but hearing him talk about the musical form that he spent all of his life honing, perfecting, and disseminating is what really makes this disc worth the dough. While many of today’s acts talk about the hard road to success, King’s insights into the genre’s neglected past and uncertain future really put everything into perspective. And this piece might be preaching to the converted — what are the chances that anyone but blues fans will be reading an article on Albert King, after all? — but, as King explains in Talking Blues, the effort is worth it. “I’m just as far from being rich as you are,” he says, “but we manage to pay Uncle Sam. And that’s all we worry about.”