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Monday, November 15, 2010

B. B. King: Live At San Quentin


1) Intro; 2) Let The Good Times Roll; 3) Every Day I Have The Blues; 4) A Whole Lot Of Lovin'; 5) Sweet Little Angel; 6) Never Make A Move Too Soon; 7) Into The Night; 8) Ain't Nobody's Business; 9) The Thrill Is Gone; 10) Peace To The World; 11) Nobody Loves Me But My Mother; 12) Sweet Sixteen; 13) Rock Me Baby.

Another album — another live album — another live prison album. Apparently, San Quen­tin's metal detectors filtered out most of the synthesizers and electronic drums, meaning that it is just another regular B. B. King live album, not any better than the average B. B. King live album, but hardly worse, either, which is respectable given the man's age at the time (sixty-five). But enough of me for now, let us hear what Michael G. from the All Music Guide has to say about the record:

«B. B. King's pleas to the literally captive audience for a round of applause for the guards wat­ch­ing over the prisoners on his first live album in nearly a decade is almost laughable. Unlike John­ny Cash's smirking irony on his album recorded at the same facility in 1969, where you can sense Cash's disdain for the captors is just as strong as the inmates', King seems to be totally oblivious to the fact that these are prisoners being held against their will. And that's the problem with this competent, if unremarkable, record: King is merely going through the motions. He could just as well be playing to a blue-blooded audience under the stars at some shed in the Midwest.»

I do not want to make a habit of quoting other people's reviews, but in this particular case, I spent quite some time wondering whether to laugh or cry, so apparently this particular judgement is worth a quote. For some reason, I'd always thought that normally entertainers entertain — that's their day job — and when they perform before a bunch of inmates, they normally go on entertai­ning, particularly since inmates may be in more need of entertainment than us free (for now) ci­tizens. And, just like the much older Cooks County album, King's San Quentin gives the inma­tes their fair share of solid entertainment. His worst «crime» may be in trying to get a few cheers for the warden from the audience (resulting in a healthy, voluminous BOOO!), but hey, the war­den gave him a medal out there, he was only trying to return the kindness.

Comparing this well-meaning, good-natured — and obviously quite well enjoyed by the audie­nce — performance with Cash's album, just because both happened to be recorded at the same place, does not even begin to miss the point, because there is no point to be missed. (Of course, B. B. should have known better when he was selecting the location; comparisons would be absolutely inevitable). Cash, most of his life, played «the thinking man's country», and his small set of pri­son albums did not so much intend to entertain as to stimulate (and reducing his approach to «smirking irony» and «disdain for the captors» is almost demeaning, as if the reviewer wanted to make some sort of Angela Davis out of the man). King is an entertainer all the way through, but an honest, passionate, and talented one.

So yes, the first song is 'Let The Good Times Roll', and those who have not heard the album can be understood with their reservations. For those who have, all that matters is that the band plays it well, the ol' man hollers like he's twenty years old, and when he calls in for audience participation, the entire hall explodes with a "let the good times roll!" as if they were all sitting "under the stars at some shed in the Midwest". And that's the biggest asset of this record: King may be going thro­ugh the motions for all I know, but the people out there are genuinely happy.

If there is something to complain about on a serious rather than socially pseudo-concerned basis, it's that the band is a little rough, almost as if some of the inmates were actually sitting in, and this takes its toll on classics like 'Thrill Is Gone' (rushed and perfunctory — for a comparably dazzling performance from the same era, check out the live version from Montreux 1993). Also, although the only «new» live number, 'Into The Night', stripped from its Eighties production, somehow fits in with the oldies, there was hardly any need to insert the studio recording of the cheerful, but dumb 'Peace To The World' in the middle and covering it in fake applause. (And I am ready to concede a point to Mr. M. G. of the All-Music Guide here: "Let's all get together and bring peace to the world" are obvious lines for that obligatory audience participation bit, but in San Quentin? Not even the Soviet Union went that far in its correction policies. And not everyone is smart eno­ugh to understand that it was, in fact, a studio track).

Other than all that, just another good B. B. King live album — well, any B. B. King live album is a good one unless the sound quality is crappy, and San Quentin got fabulous acoustics. Johnny Cash already figured that out. Thumbs up.

Check "Live At San Quentin" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Live At San Quentin" (MP3) on Amazon

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