B. B. KING: ONE KIND FAVOR (2008)
1) See That My Grave Is Kept Clean; 2) I Get So Weary; 3) Get These Blues Off Me; 4) How Many More Years; 5) Waiting For Your Call; 6) My Love Is Down; 7) The World Is Gone Wrong; 8) Blues Before Sunrise; 9) Midnight Blues; 10) Backwater Blues; 11) Sitting On Top Of The World; 12) Tomorrow Night.
There is definitely an attempt to find some sort of different edge here; unfortunately, in the long run One Kind Favor still ends up being «just another B. B. King album». Of course, one should never forget that it is «just another B. B. King album recorded at the age of 83» — at this point, each new release from the man is a must-hear, if only as a source of inspiration for all of us low-down quitters like Mick Jagger and Angus Young.
Good news involve producer T-Bone Burnett, who has dedicated much of his life to finding a perfect balance between progressive technology and archaistic atmosphere; one more return of Dr. John, whose piano playing is often enough to make even a turd burst into flowers; and a number of golden oldies that had never before received the B. B. King touch. Bad news are that T-Bone's production style and King's standard idiom do not mesh well together; that most of the extra studio musicians are little more than paid professionals; and that most of the golden oldies are standard 12-bar fare — and do we really need another version of 'Tomorrow Night', what with Reflections released a mere five years earlier?
Granted, the album starts out tremendously well. Blind Lemon's 'See That My Grave Is Kept Clean', whose lyrics also lend the album its title, obviously has a lot of relevance for King these days, and even though there is no reason to think that he meant it as a final musical gesture, he clearly sings it testament-style, in a wearier voice than usual. Meanwhile, Burnett surrounds his delivery with dark, swampy atmosphere, with a muffling effect on Jim Keltner's drums and a thin organ membrane that is more felt than heard. Nothing of the kind can be found on any other B. B. King album — this is the finest intro-bait we've had from the man in maybe thirty years or so.
Alas, already on the second track, even though the production values mostly remain the same, the magic starts to dissipate. Had they concentrated on darker, deeper material throughout, One Kind Favor would truly be different. But this is where B. B.'s self-imposed limitations step in: he is such a big-hearted optimist that he can never stay steeped in doom and gloom for too long. Entertainment has been his motto all these years, and what kind of an entertainer would want to spend an entire hour depressing his audiences?
Throughout all of the remaining eleven tracks, Burnett is pretty much helpless. He still puts that echo on the drums, brings the bass high up in the mix to make things run in a jazzier vein, buries Lucille under waves of brass and keyboards — no dice. There is a physical limit to what you can do with the 12-bar form delivered by an 83-year old whose style of playing and guitar tones have not changed all that much ever since they learned how to run electricity through a six-string.
Also, it worries me to say this, but it does seem like King is honestly sounding a little tired and worn down here: the singing is quieter, shakier, and, overall, somewhat less expressive than it had been even three years earlier on the 80th jubilee album. This may be one of the reasons why 'See That My Grave Is Kept Clean' works so well on the senses — and why all the other songs do not. In this situation, he could perhaps concentrate more on the playing than on the singing, and on the slow mood pieces rather than aggressive mid-tempo blues-rock ('Backwater Blues' and 'Waiting For Your Call', both of them seriously overlong, still work better than something like 'How Many More Years' in this setting). On the other hand, the last time it happened, his idea of a slow mood piece was the sweet lounge sound of Reflections, and that's no salvation either.
What to do, then? Retire? Apparently, that is not going to happen as long as the man is physically capable of doing something to that guitar. All that is left us is sit back and endure: as long as the King refrains from embarrassments (say, a duet with Eminem or a production deal with the Bama Boyz), everything that he records until his demise (currently scheduled for the aftermath of World War III from a bad cold caught on Keith Richards' funeral) is going to be listened to with the proper reverence. As for One Kind Favor, I'd like to give it a thumbs down, but it does have one terrific performance, and in any case, we are way, way past the thumbs stage on here.
Check "One Kind Favor" (CD) on Amazon
Check "One Kind Favor" (MP3) on Amazon