ALBERT KING: IN SESSION WITH STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN (1983; 1999)
1) Call It Stormy Monday; 2) Old Times; 3) Pride And Joy; 4) Ask Me No Questions; 5) Pep Talk; 6) Blues At Sunrise; 7) Turn It Over; 8) Overall Junction; 9) Match Box Blues; 10) Who Is Stevie; 11) Don't Lie To Me.
A recording that pits one of the greatest blues stars of the «old school» against one of the brightest blues legends of the «new school» should be predictably boring and boringly predictable, and In Session does not dissapoint — it is so by-the-bookishly great that I could not tolerate its presence in the foreground for even five seconds before my attention would slip away to something different. Which, of course, does not in the least prohibit this recording, and also the accompanying video program, from enduring and enjoying a legendary status.
Although both the album and the video obviously belong in the discographies of both artists, the field here largely belongs to King — he is, after all, the older one, and does his best to appear in the role of the wise master teacher (on ʽPep Talkʼ, he is hilariously pushing Stevie towards perfectionism: "the better you get, the harder you work, you can't say, ʽI've got it madeʼ... you're already pretty good, but you're gonna get better" — "that's the whole point", the Texas kid replies humbly and politely, instead of "fuck you dad" which he was probably thinking at the moment). It is said that, when he was approached about recording a session with Vaughan, he initially declined, not knowing who Vaughan was — then realized it was the «little Stevie» he'd allowed to sit in with himself during some of his earlier Texas shows, and once it became clear that the session could be conducted in this «father-son» manner, things started getting easier.
Anyway, what we have here is a selection of blues classics, mostly from the standard repertoire of Albert's, with one Stevie number (ʽPride And Joyʼ) graciously accepted for balance (the video and audio releases have significantly differing tracklists, by the way, so any fan should consider owning both), and interrupted by bits of studio banter, mostly from King reminiscing about the old times (such as playing ʽBlues At Sunriseʼ at the Fillmore with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin at the same time). Stevie, on the verge of his big breakthrough, is in good form, and Albert was never in bad form as long as the material was adequate. The obvious question is — how are they up for teamwork, and does that teamwork offer any extra revelations?
One thing I must confess is that, throughout the endless blues jamming, I was not always able to tell who of the two was taking the lead (referring to the audio soundtrack only, of course). As different as King's and Vaughan's blues playing styles generally are, when seated together and focused on the same thing, the two players seem to have drifted almost uncomfortably close to each other, with Stevie in particular wanting to impress Albert by feeding him back trademark Albert licks (or, when asked for it, as on ʽBlues At Sunriseʼ, some trademark Hendrix licks: "this is where you gotta play Jimi's part", King says, and the disciple obeys). Albert himself also rises to the occasion and plays the whole show as fluent, loud, screechy, and well-rounded as possible: no flubs or retro-style minimalist passages that would date him as somebody out of the 1950s.
The result is a curious «merger» that, paradoxically, seems to lower the sheer entertainment value of the experience — with two blues greats trading solos played in similar styles, what's the major use of having them engage in these lengthy jams at all? In the end, it all looks more like a textbook of possible blues licks, created by the two with the aim of educating their audiences about the blues rather than having themselves some fun. As a textbook, it is beyond reproach: you could hardly wish for a more awesome combination of stellar players if you are in the mood for some star-powered blues-rock. But I do not think that either Stevie or Albert are at their most «natural» here — to achieve that proverbial «chemistry», they play it too safe around each other.
Most of the reviews I've encountered for In Session were glowing, but I really wonder how many of them weren't already following a pre-set bias (if you get Vaughan and King together on one record, and if they find a way to gel together, then this has to be good because there is no way it could ever be bad). Well, actually, there are relatively few of these «super-sessions» that would eclipse the individual highlights of the superstars, and this is no exception — to truly appreciate these people, you need to look at them separately, not together. Did they make history on that night? Would be hard to deny that. Isn't it great to have a whole hour of high-quality footage of Albert King's playing (so rare to come across in general)? Sure is. Did I have a right to expect more than what I got? Yes, I did. No, I did not. Why should this super-session be different from any other super-session?..