It’s hard to imagine a better introduction to B.B. King than the three live albums that make up Chronicles. In fact, if you have Live at the Regal, Blues is King, and Live at Cook County Jail, you arguably possess the best that King’s massive catalog has to offer — and therefore some of the best the blues has to offer. The packaging of this particular collection is a little iffy — it’s really nothing but the three discs and their accompanying CD booklets slapped inside of a book-form box set — but there’s no denying the quality of the music.
Even amongst the rarified company it keeps in Chronicles, 1965’s Live at the Regal stands out. Recorded on a cold winter’s night on November 21, 1964, Live at the Regal finds King relatively early in his career, when his voice could climb from a guttural groan to an impassioned falsetto on a moment’s notice, and his stage presence was a charismatic mixture of roadhouse fire and theatre-level showmanship. His take on “Sweet Little Angel” is saucy and energetic, while his rendition of “It’s My Own Fault” brings the house down, but his smooth-as-silk transition between the two portrays an artist who’s completely in his element. And the crowd on this particular night is incredible. From start to finish, their energy never flags (think near-Beatles levels of screaming when King really hits his stride), and they treat every classic blues lyric with an enthusiastic call-and-response attitude. Live at the Regal is not just a legendary B.B. King album, but a legendary blues album, and with good reason.
If 1967’s Blues is King suffers, it’s only by comparison to Live at the Regal, and only then because the recording’s a little rougher and a little more cobbled together — there’s no pretense of a seamless presentation. But make no mistake, King and his band are just as on fire through each of these tracks. Boasting a completely different set list from Live at the Regal, Blues is King finds King still groanin’ the blues, but his use of horns shows more jazz influence and the band’s sound contains more of a ragged shuffle. The sound of this one is pure, ragged chitlin’ circuit heat.
1971’s Live in Cook County Jail also occupies a rightful place in B.B. King lore, in part because of its back story. According to the liner notes, King’s visit came during a time of radical reform at the prison, so King’s visit bore the burden of solidifying the new warden’s position as well as offering welcome distraction for a crowd of appreciative inmates. The record gets off to a raucous start, with introductions of the warden, sheriff, and local judge receiving derisive applause, but after that, the atmosphere is surprisingly polite. This partly stems from King’s gentlemanly sense of understatement (“I would like to [play here] again if you would like to have us back” is typical of his remarks to the crowd), although there’s very little restraint in King’s playing and singing. Starting off with a breakneck rendition of “Every Day I Have the Blues,” King and his band don’t let up for the next half hour or so. If there’s one highlight, it’s easily “The Thrill is Gone”. A relatively new addition to King’s repertoire (1969’s Completely Well saw its debut), the song’s performance on Live in Cook County Jail ranks as possibly the best King’s ever recorded. Soulful vocals, sympathetic horns and piano from the band — it’s a recording that completely makes you reevaluate a song you’ve heard so many times you’ve probably quit listening. This one will open your ears back up.
In fact, all three of these albums perform that service surprisingly well. These days, with King nearing his 80s and enjoying the comforts of elder statesman status, it’s important to be reminded that he deserves every accolade thrown at his feet. These are vital recordings, full of life and fire, and they show King as an unstoppable blues force.
If there’s any downside to this collection, it’s only in the packaging. The albums logically go together, but they still seem thrown together in haphazard fashion. Besides, if you’re any kind of B.B. King fan, you probably have some, if not all, of them already. No bonus tracks, remastering, or revised liner notes to be found — just three essential live albums chunked together. Heck, the retail price for the box is basically what you’d pay if you bought all three separately, so there’s not even the incentive of a volume discount (especially galling since these records have probably recouped their costs a thousand times over). On the other hand, if you don’t have any of these records, Chronicles is your perfect chance to remedy that gap in your collection. This is prime B.B. King, and you’d be hard pressed to find anything better, either in his catalog or anywhere else in the blues.