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Monday, June 21, 2010

B. B. King: Live At The Regal


1) Every Day I Have The Blues; 2) Sweet Little Angel; 3) It's My Own Fault; 4) How Blue Can You Get?; 5) Please Love Me; 6) You Upset Me Baby; 7) Worry, Worry; 8) Woke Up This Morning; 9) You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now; 10) Help The Poor.

Eventually, someone got it right: even if the live album format was not nearly as obligatory a companion for a performing artist in 1965 as it would be in just a few years, few people deserved a switch to that format any more than the B. B. of the Kings. Unfortunately, Live At The Regal's huge reputa­tion has been causing an almost equally huge backlash in recent years — what with most people falling for the «wanna know what B. B. King sounds like? Try out Live At The Regal» trap, or, even worse, the «wanna know what the blues is all about? How about getting Live At The Regal?» travesty.

But it does not work that way. According to hearsay, King himself never considered the final product to be all that great, which is telling, coming from someone who quite obviously is his own biggest fan. Listening to the Regal performance out of context is entirely useless; for most people, it will merely sound like an adequate blues concert. And reading all the rave-ups about how this is one of the most «fiery», «incendiary», «exciting», «involving» etc. performances of its time — come on now, who do these guys think they're kidding? Jerry Lee Lewis' Live At The Star Club — now that's excitement. Live At The Regal is polite entertainment.

Still, even today, with those early days of electric blues magic long concealed from us by the trash heaps of generic 12-bar hacks, all it takes to give Regal the appreciation it deserves is to listen to the twelve or so studio LPs that B. B. had to put out in order to gain the precious right to include a recording mike on stage. There, he was cornered; on stage, he is unleashed, and as cli­chéd as this phrase may sound, there is no better context in which to insert it. Playing whatever he wants, however he wants to play it, and for as long as he wants to play it (well, all right, in 1965 he still had himself some time constraints), the man finally gets to show that there is so much mo­re behind the polished surface of his hit singles — enough to convince even fans of the grimmer blues of Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker of his worthiness.

Some of the songs are played as several-movements «blues suites», where all it takes is a slight change of key in between bars to move from one type of wail to another; this may actually be bet­ter than inserting all the usual breaks, because there is no pretense of playing different songs, and the breaks, where they are present, generally indicate the transition into a general sub-style, of which B. B. has developed many: jump blues ('Every Day I Have The Blues'), boogie blues ('Ple­ase Love Me'), rumba blues ('Woke Up This Morning'), and soul blues ('Help The Poor').

Like every self-respecting entertainer, King likes to address the crowds — most often, over a mu­sical background from his backing band — and his ad-libbed bits diversify the atmosphere, ser­ving either as thematic links in between numbers (e. g. the seamless transition from 'Sweet Little Angel' to 'It's My Own Fault') or as justifications of the song's existence (for 'How Blue Can You Get?', he says, "...I would like you to pay attention to the lyrics, not so much to my singing or the band" — right on the money, because the song is lyrically arresting).

The unquestionable centerpiece of the album lies in the six and a half minutes of 'Worry, Worry', for the first time ever giving us an extended blues solo — two minutes of subtle blueswailing that sets the benchmark for so many things to come: this is not just generic improvisation, but an at­tempt to «play human» with the guitar, alternating bends, wobbles, stops, and starts in completely unpredictable and yet completely melodic ways. (Not to mention one of B. B.'s most impressive falsetto parts on record).

Understandably, Live At The Regal's historical importance — this is, after all, one of the few albums that are directly responsible for the birth of blues-rock as such — has forever oversha­dow­ed its hands-down value (much like, I must add, that of James Brown's Live At The Apollo, if it's all about barbecuing sacred cows). But then there is also no better spot to locate, assess, di­gest, and enjoy a young, rough-spirited, easy-going, eager to please, and, at the same time, not yet corporally or spiritually overweight king of the blues than Live At The Regal; even if it is no independent masterpiece, it is still a unique piece of history and identity. A sacred cow, after all, does not become sacred for nothing. Thumbs up.

1 comment:

  1. "According to hearsay, King himself never considered the final product to be all that great, which is telling, coming from someone who quite obviously is his own biggest fan."

    Where did you get that nonsense from? B.B. was a more than modest man, who seriously undervalued his own abilities for his entire life. He described Eric Clapton as a genius and didn't think he was in the same league!