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Music Review: B.B. King – One Kind Favor

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Innovation can be overrated. Change for change’s sake is just that, neither inherently good nor bad. You have to read the fine print. Don’t ever bet things can’t get worse, that there’s nowhere further to fall. That’s a sucker’s bet, one that many have lost. There’s a lot to be said for knowing who you are, what you do, and where you live.

I’ve always preferred the traditional to the modern when it comes to the blues. I know there are some who argue for the genre to flourish it must grow. Doesn’t it get stale if you never venture outside the comfort zone? Isn’t experimentation vital to an artist, a genre? It’s debatable. To quote Springsteen, “What if what you do to survive kills the things you love?” As with most things, balance is key. It’s good to venture out there a ways as long as you’re tethered to something to bring you back or you leave a trail of breadcrumbs if you lose your way.

I scoffed a little when I heard B.B. King was going to make a “back to basics” record of blues standards. The idea felt a little gimmicky to me. It’s not as though King’s discography is littered with wild variations. He’s the King of the Blues and a National Treasure. How far is that journey back to the basics? Will we notice the difference? Is it one worth taking?

King considered some of these things when the idea was pitched to him by producer T Bone Burnett. Could the B.B. King of today get back into the mind, mode, and sound of the B.B. King of the ’50s? Even if the idea of back to basics seemed gimmicky on the surface, that question is an intriguing one, made all the more tantalizing by the group of people he surrounded himself with to answer it. With producer Burnett to guide, King, legendary pianist Dr. John, bassist Nathan East (Eric Clapton), and drummer Jim Keltner, followed a course to find the answer with 12 carefully selected songs.

In order to really recapture the sound of classic King, Burnett re-created a recording studio circa 1950 and cut the songs live in studio. There’s a warm, antique sound with just a hint of that familiar distortion on the vocal and drum microphones, replicating the beauties and limitations of the science of sound recording and reproduction of those days gone by. These songs sound like they were recorded for vinyl, like they should be heard on a jukebox in a smoky lounge or nightclub.

Elegant, classy, and vintage are the first words that come to mind in describing this record. There’s a mature sophistication to this excellent collection of blues standards. Jim Keltner’s jazzy, inspired drumming gives a syncopated swing to album opening “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” a clear highlight on the record. From the balladeering of “Sitting On Top Of The World” and “Blues Before Sunrise,” King is in strong voice, sounding relaxed and confident. Fans of the the legend’s patented single-string leads will find plenty to sink their teeth into on cuts like “Get These Blues Off Me” and “Backwater Blues.”

Whether King needed revitalizing or not, he’s found it on this record. The song selections are inspired, the arrangements sympathetic, and the playing tight. The conceit of taking him back in time in terms of song selection and recording style has helped yield one of the most satisfying, enjoyable records of the legend’s career.

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About Josh Hathaway

  • great review josh. i just have to get this cd.

    you know, it’s interesting how effective this back to basics kind of thing can be. heck, it even works in the realm of modern country. well ok, the modern country artist. i’m talking about Martina McBride. when she put out that truly traditional record, it really pointed out that neo-country shares the same set of problems as pop and rock music: no “air” in the music.

    …and it got me to thinking: what would happen if a modern rock band tried to recreate the sound of a good mid-70’s recording?

    anyway, this one’s on my gotta have list.

  • Thanks, Mark. Yeah, I think you’ll love this one. I have “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” permanently etched in my head. It’s a fabulous performance of that song.

    This has such a vintage feel. Voice and guitar are mixed up front, live in the studio, vintage equipment, no fuckin’ ProTools (you hear me, Mr. Clapton??)! The horns are arranged in that same sort of style, too. I risk talking out of my ass as I’m not a real student of jazz, but I hear such a jazz and swing influence on this record.

    T Bone Burnett for President.

  • “I risk talking out of my ass as I’m not a real student of jazz, but I hear such a jazz and swing influence on this record.”

    No sir, you’re not talking out your ass; parts of this record reminds me of the jazzy, swinging blues of another T-Bone: Walker.

  • Well thanks, Pico, but I believe the official BC party line is that I do in fact speak from my gluteus. 🙂

  • Johnny Winter did much the same thing when he first recorded Muddy Waters. He put all the players back into one studio and all that sound feeding through amps and mics and such added to the depth of the recording. Seems like Burnett learned the lesson well.

    Personally, I’m tired of all the overproduced slickness. I want the music to sound like a bunch of friends getting together to make good music, y’know?

    I just got a copy of this CD, Josh. I’m likin’ it, too.

  • Yes, excellent, the Johnny Winters/Muddy Waters albums are very good points of reference. Burnett and King took it one step further in trying to go “back to the future” if you will but both are great examples. One Kind Favor isn’t quite as awesome as Hard Again, but it sits nicely with I’m Ready.