I have to admit, even after who knows how many years of listening to pop music, I still haven't overcome a prejudice. Put a single white guy on the cover of a disc with a guitar and call it blues and all I can think is, 'Great another guitar hero, just what the world needs'.
Patently unfair and completely without any sort of basis in fact, it means a disc with that type of cover is going to have to do something special right from the first song in order to catch my attention. So when Corey Stevens' latest disc Albertville showed up and had a picture of a guy leaning on his guitar on the cover… well let's just say I had concerns.
Reading his biography made me feel a litter better. He's been playing on the road for the last ten years, including a stint touring with the ultimate in Classic Rock bands ZZ Top (one of the few times I'll go along with the strange way you Americans have of saying that letter – Zed Zed Top just wouldn't cut it) and Lynard Skynyrd.
This means he's knocked around a bit and won't have many illusions left, so if he's still playing it's because he really loves the music. The other thing that captured my eye was his decision a couple years back to record an album of acoustic blues as a break from the electric blues/rock stuff he'd been playing for the prior ten years. To me that showed he was also a guy who was willing to take risks musically, which meant there was a good chance it wouldn't be the same old boring songs as an excuse for guitar solo stuff you hear you so often.
Finally there was the name of the disc, Albertville, and the fact that it was a tribute to one of my all time favourite blues players Albert King that made it really catch my attention. I had actually seen an advertisement for it and been curious as to how it sounded even before I received a copy from Corey's new label Ruf Records of Germany.
Hoping the title track, "A Real Good Sign" would be, I slipped it in. I hadn't realized I'd been holding my breath until I released it with the first sound of horns after three or four bars. That's when I knew I was safe – it wasn't another guitar hero album, it was a Blues album that I could settle back and enjoy without any worry about somebody's ego getting in the way of the music.
That's what great about this album, and something that is becoming harder and harder to find, you can just settle back and enjoy listening to somebody playing and loving every second. Stevens seems to remember that it's called playing for a reason and enjoys himself. It could be the six hundredth take for all we know but he is having so much fun and playing every note that even if you were in the studio you wouldn't be able to tell.
What I liked about this tribute album was not only is there material written by King on the disc, but also tracks that he was famous for playing. Corey also included one of his own songs that showed King's influence on his playing style. Corey's track, "Another Pretty Face", blends in perfectly with all the other material on the disc, not because it's derivative or imitative, but because it is played and written in the same spirit as the other music. Being influenced by does not mean copying, it means absorbing what the other person did and incorporating into what you do.
Albertville is also a lot of fun to listen to because of Corey's willingness to play with different styles and to not just spotlight his own talents. His use of the two horn players for emphasis on songs, the Hammond organ pulsating in the background, and letting a well played base line march to the front of the mix, all contribute to making the disc, as a whole, a far more diverse and interesting presentation than similar solo projects.
Of course the choice of material doesn't hurt either, from a nicely slowed down version of the Carl Perkins classic "Blue Suede Shoes", the fun of "I Get Evil" and the funkiness of "Little Brother (Make Way)", Corey Stevens has put together a collection of music that shows off his talents to their best. From his stripped down bare bones guitar playing with never a wasted note to his raunchy voice, trying to picture him singing anything but this type of material is next to impossible.
Before his death in 1992 Albert King had influenced a number of rock guitar players, among them Jimi Hendrix. Almost forty years after his death, what I remember most about Jimi was not his pyrotechnics (literally and figuratively) but the blues he began to focus on near the end of his life. Sure, he was spectacularly fast and flamboyant. But he could also play a sparser and neater style when called for by the song.
Like all decent performers he allowed himself to be a conduit through which the music could pass untouched by his ego to the waiting listener. Even when the material was something he'd written, Hendrix realized the song was more important then he was. Guitar players are a-dime-a-dozen, but the men and women who can interpret a song with respect are few and far between.
Corey Stevens shows himself on Albertville to be more then just a guitar player. He can take a song and coax it to life with an interpretation that might be his own, but still respects the original material. Listening to Albertville is listening to a collection of songs, not guitar solo's masquerading as music. Corey Stevens may be a guitar player, but he's a musician first, and he definitely proves it on his latest release.