Senior statesman of the blues keeps the flame burning
Albert King was just like an old Grandfather clock that kept on ticking no matter what. Day after day, night after night, just ticking away, keeping time in the most regal of fashion. Like BB King and Muddy Waters, King was a timekeeper who never changed no matter in which era he lived. Because why change what is already perfect to begin with.
Born in Indianola, Mississippi, in 1924, King was raised by his mother in Arkansas, where he learned how to play music through a single strand of baling wire tied between the wall and the floor, before eventually graduating to a guitar made out of old cigar box, which probably goes some way to explain his unique style and technique, a style that would go on to influence many other guitarists who weren’t even born when he was plying his trade.
That almost ancient approach is more than apparent on Albert King Live, a document so far removed from King’s humble beginnings that one wonders what he himself must of thought as he walked onto the stage to perform at the Montreux Festival in Switzerland in 1977.
The set opens with a showy, almost Las Vegas style “Watermelon Man,” with horns galore and plenty of cabaret flash, but soon King brings it back down to earth, by talking to the crowd while discharging a few of his trademark licks, as he also does on the funky “Don’t Burn Down The Bridge.” He gets down to business on “Blues At Sunrise,” a slow burner on which King plays and sings with an earthiness rarely heard today, before returning to the glitz of “That’s What The Blues Is All About,” proving that he is not merely a bluesman, but also a consummate showman.
The centre piece of the LP is undoubtedly “Stormy Monday,” a classic number showcasing King’s ability to create quiet tension and hold the crowd in the palm of his hand at the same time. King’s playing might seem a little understated, at least by Foofighters standards, but let’s not forget that sometimes less is more, and his performance here proves him to be one of the great grand statesmen of soloing.
From the goodtime Chicago shuffle of “Kansas City” to “I’m Gonna Call You As Soon As The Sun Goes Down,” King never misses a trick, even playing alongside Rory Gallagher, someone who shows respect by never trying to outplay his idol, but rather by complimenting him, even if he is a little more nimble fingered.
The soulful “As The Years Go Passing By” is another highlight, and the song which originally appeared on 1966’s “Born Under A Bad Sign,” an album that would go on to influence Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, along with many other musicians of the era. Gallagher makes his entrance by playing a subtle yet no less intense guitar solo, more akin to paying homage rather than attempting to outdo anybody.
Gallagher can also be heard on “Overall Junction,” a boogie blues during which King is clearly enjoying himself, followed by the soul-oriented “I’ll Play The Blues For You,” on which King waxes lyrical mid way through on the theme of loneliness and being alone in this world. The brass section can get somewhat overbearing after a while, but then that’s what brass sections are ultimately for, to distract the listener from what is vital and important, namely King’s wondrous guitar.
Like BB King, Albert King had a distinct style and musical instinct all his own, and something which can never be repeated, as were many of the blues musicians of his generation. That we will never see the likes of them again is a saddening thought, but one which shouldn’t diminish their memory.