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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

B. B. King: Completely Well


1) So Excited; 2) No Good; 3) You're Losin' Me; 4) What Happened; 5) Confessin' The Blues; 6) Key To My King­dom; 7) Crying Won't Help You; 8) You're Mean; 9) The Thrill Is Gone.

Produced by Bill Szymczyk (who is usually known as the guiding hand behind The James Gang and, more notably, the Eagles, but is a good guy all the same, neh), just like its predecessor and essentially more of the same — same band, same swagger, same style, same acute desire to modernize and assimilate that new funky sound the kids dig so much.

The big hit, however, had nothing to do with the new funky sound; it was 'The Thrill Is Gone', a song that more or less set the template for how to merge 12-bar blues with «adult contemporary». Not that the term itself existed in 1969, but you know what I mean: without this song, there'd be no Gary Moore, and both Eric Clapton's and Stevie Ray Vaughan's careers would miss at least one of their facets. Not the best one, of course, but I am merely trying to point out how influential the song turned out to be — no judgement passed.

The judgement on the song itself would, of course, be unequivocally positive. No matter how ma­ny recordings B. B. had cut in the past, he'd never really tried out the «dark soul» approach along the lines of, say, Ray Charles' 'Unchain My Heart'. In fact, the whole thing sort of evaded the at­tention of prime time blues players, with maybe one or two notable exceptions like those pionee­ring mid-Fifties singles from Otis Rush. 'Thrill Is Gone' glaringly exploits that gap, and gives us, first time ever — at least, in the eyes of this particular white-man reviewer — a B. B. King that rises high above the idea of «entertainment».

People frequently talk about Szymczyk's strings arrangement as almost the cornerstone of the en­tire composition, even though the strings were an afterthought, a late addition after the number had already been cut and everyone understood this was something different. Minimalistic, but ex­pressive guitar, singing on the verge of tears (for once, without a trace of showman-like manner­isms), and deeply reaching, deadly serious bass lines and electric piano flourishes — solid busi­ness for sure. If you want, you may even search for still deeper interpretations: for instance, the louder, the more frantically B. B. is yelling that "I'm free now baby, I'm free from your spell", the clearer you understand that he is anything but free, and that the song, in his interpretation, is, above all else, about self-deception, and that the gloomy arrangement is supposed to underscore how tragically chained the protagonist is to his destiny...

...but enough of this. It's a swell performance that made B. B. King the big hero of white audien­ces looking for deep emotions from black men, and all the better. The rest of the album, mind you, is fairly different; so much so that one could even think of 'Thrill' as a special last minute add-on to ring the soul bells for the likes of Eric Clapton. There are the usual rip-roaring blues-rock bra­vados, of which the opening number 'So Excited' is particularly notable, highlighted — no, not by the usual wailing monologs from Lucille, but rather from Hugh McCracken's gruff, rhythmic wah­­-wah solo, with a combination of tone and melody quite unheard of in 1969, similar to Jimi's workout on 'Voodoo Chile', but more humble and somewhat more «swampy» in attitude, how­ever you decide to interpret that epithet.

Other notable tracks include a very upbeat, very determined frontal assault on 'Confessin' The Blues'; a cool funky collective workout on 'You're Losin' Me'; and a sprawling sixteen-minute jam ('Crying Won't Help You/You're Mean') for which one just got to have patience — the true fire does not ignite until B. B. and McCracken start trading licks between each other, pretty soon erupting into a red-hot guitar battle with sparks flying off everywhere. (They sort of run it in the ground, eventually — "whach'all trying to do, kill me?" B. B. complains in the last seconds, jo­kingly, of course, because he knows real well, himself, that this killer band is only there to bring out the best in himself).

Thus, as much as the whole experience is overshadowed by the grand — and fully deserved — success of 'Thrill', Completely Well is a perfectly apt title for the album, and should probably be among everybody's first B. B. King purchases: late Sixties blues-rock at its finest. Thumbs up.

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