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Monday, August 31, 2009

Albert King: I'll Play The Blues For You


1) I'll Play The Blues For You; 2) Little Brother; 3) Breaking Up Somebody's Home; 4) High Cost Of Loving; 5) I'll Be Doggone; 6) Answer To The Laundromat Blues; 7) Don't Burn Down The Bridge; 8) Angel Of Mercy.

A most important change of scenery. This time around, instead of Booker T. & The MG's, Albert teams up with the Bar-Kays for an overall sound that is more funk-flavoured R'n'B than traditional blues, and it works — his old licks, stewed in this new setting, suddenly acquire a new freshness. It turns out that they are fully com­patible with syncopated bass and wah-wah rhythms, and can easily carry on a leng­thy funk jam the same way they'd carried on all the lengthy blues jams.

Obviously, like all the older generation bluesmen who had the luck to become or go on being commercial and critical stars in the 1960s, King was reluctant to see his name drop off the charts or get dirtied with the tag of «irrelevance», so some sort of modernization was in order; and, for­tunately for humanity, this was still early Seventies, when funk was young and fresh and totally progres­sive in essence, and the Bar-Kays could play it as well as anyone. One thing most funk people did not have, though, was a great traditional guitarist to back them up — and this means that there is every reason in the world to listen to I'll Play The Blues For You even after you have heard all the George Clinton and James Brown and Sly Stone classics from this era.

There could only be one way in which the results would have turned out catastrophic: that is, if Albert started reinventing himself as some sort of funk superstar to show off rather than just play and sing. This is more or less how things are on the album's unluckiest track, a syncopated groove reworking of Marvin Gaye's pop standard 'I'll Be Doggone'. Recorded live, it incorporates some fairly forced audience interaction where Albert admits to wanting to play a James Brown before the fans ('can I go to the bridge?' and all that), and this is just not him — he sounds nowhere near as self-assured as when asking his San Francisco albums if they 'can dig it' on the live albums from 1968. Wanting to funk it up is one thing, but playing with James Brown at James' own game is quite another.

However, this is just an exception. Everywhere else King is being quite moderate, wisely leaving the «renovation» to his backing band, himself satisfied with pouring the same old wine into new winebags. The hit title track, a pompous piece of blues-soul in the vein of B. B. King, is deeply emotional; 'Breaking Up Somebody's Home' rocks harder than anything on his last two albums; and 'Don't Burn Down The Bridge' has as much soul-wrenching blues power as it has knee-jerking funk power.

I would not go as far as to call these songs «masterpieces», but if ever there was a reason for Albert King to go on recording new music, this bit of restyling is that reason — in fact, it is hard to think of any other way in which he could have successfully freshened up his approach. In terms of actual influence, I'll Play The Blues For You does not even begin to compare with Born Under A Bad Sign, but in terms of self-contained musical progress, it is King's most clever and inspired album ever since, and it deserves all the thumbs up it can get from both the mind and the heart.

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