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King the merciless

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The blues of guitarist Albert King shines with a keening, metallic glint. He builds solos like a welder, carefully measuring each phrase for its shading and intensity, then laying another atop or alongside it, often with unexpected drops and variations in tone and timbre, all the while working toward the inevitable climax. He dangles the idea of that climax tantalizingly in front of you as the solo snakes its way through various false starts and side trips, until finally he decides he's said what he has to say and concludes abruptly, topping everything off with a signature flourish. He then turns disdainfully away from his sidemen and exchanges a few words with the audience or puffs imperiously on his pipe as the band works to keep up with the standards he's set. Once in a while, he even allows himself to look pleased.

That workmanlike approach is appropriate to a musician who claims that the rhythmic roar of trucks and machinery outside his home was an important early influence on his style. King was a journeyman on the blues scene through most of the mid- to late 50s; the 1960s "blues revival" gave his career a major shot in the arm; and today he's an institution. Several of his hits ("Born Under a Bad Sign," "Cadillac Assembly Line," "Crosscut Saw," and his signature tune, "I'll Play the Blues For You") have become standards, and his technique is one of the most imitated (and perhaps one of the most difficult to do justice to) of any contemporary guitarist.

It's no accident that one of King's most popular recordings extols the labors of an assembly-line auto worker. Everything about the man and his music--his physical brawn and stolid elegance, the relentlessly craftsmanlike logic of his leads, even his glowering, fierce persona--evokes the proletarian roots of the blues. When he smooths things out and croons "The Very Thought of You" in his dusky vibrato, the smoldering emotion beneath the surface makes the song's tenderness all the more riveting.

The smoky sensuality of King's voice, juxtaposed with the harsh glint and impeccable logic of his fretwork, brings a welcome relief from the oppressively patriarchal persona he affects both onstage and off. His way with musicians is legendary: he barks commands and glares fiercely at miscreants, sometimes even castigating them through the microphone. Many observers feel that this adversely affects the band's performance; at a gig at B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera a couple of weeks back, several musicians in the audience commented that the band looked too scared to play. The sidemen watched King's every move with apparent vigilance and dread, and even then King felt compelled to hold a closed-door "private meeting" with them between sets.

This particular evening, King was hoarse; only occasionally did he summon his patented bull roar on up-tempo blues, and he didn't attempt any ballads at all. But despite the rasp of his voice and the nearly inevitable tension with musicians and sound crew, the genius of his music shone clearly. One of the most distinctive things about King's improvisations is his tendency to think in terms of swooping down to grab sounds and ideas, rather than the usual straining upward. When King bends strings, the melody line slithers down like a wire gone temporarily flaccid; then he snaps everything taut by clustering notes between the drawn-out phrases he uses to bridge his ideas. Most guitarists sound as if they're stretching their solos to new, agonizing heights when they bend notes; King has an uncanny knack of seeming to pull the entire solo toward him, like sheet metal being smoothed out, to make it more pliable to his demands.

This lets him build solos that are more complex, emotionally and musically, than those of many guitarists whose technical facilities might be greater than his. The usual blues solo these days builds to a screaming climax, then cuts off fiercely--the tension/release and its sensual implications made all too obvious. King, on the other hand, tantalizes you for a while before finally going for the top: his leads are more like swirling chrome than roaring fire, with smooth drops and deceptive denouements layered within them. In some ways it's appropriate to his image as a stern controller: he'll tantalize you, set you up for ecstasy or disappointment, then pull back at the last minute and dive or shoot out in the opposite direction. His mastery thus established, he's free to finally ignite the full force of his jets and go for the heights.

Yet for all his machine-shop precision and obsessive domineering, there's an emotional depth to King that isn't always evident on record. That's partly due to production: the recording of "Cadillac Assembly Line" is marred by a violin backing that's as out of place as pink lemonade in a workingman's bar. Onstage, though, King is at his best when some warmth and humanity seep through.

Not that he ever becomes a pussycat. Even when he complains of mistreatment at the hands of his woman, it's pretty obvious that her refusal to give him his due is her problem; he'd just as soon leave as not. But when he aches for a lover's touch or offers playful delights to his lady, as in "Personal Manager" ("I want to be your milkman in the morning / Your ice cream man when the day is through"), the warmth and joy of the wordplay stand in delightful contrast to the sometimes relentlessly hard surface of his guitar leads.

At B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera, "Personal Manager" was both a highlight and an indicator of some of the problems King was encountering with his band. He was already somewhat unhappy about earlier technical difficulties, and when communication between him and second guitarist Jimmy Gales went awry, King snapped and glared at him, then cut into a fierce, angry-sounding solo that nonetheless developed into one of the evening's most impressive. Lean and stretched tight as a suspension bridge wire, it was shattered into splinters by staccato barrages, then reconstructed with sustained phrases stretched over the empty spaces left by the accompaniment.

"Travelin' to California," another King standard, continued in the same vein, as he spit fire into fierce notes accented with blistering shards of feedback, a flirt with distortion, and finally an onslaught that approximated a wall of sound but sizzled with undulating lava streams. He cooled it off with a finish that still glistened but was no longer scalding, and a final zip down the fretboard served as an exclamation point. King's eyes glittered as he allowed himself a satisfied smile (or was it a smirk?) and left most of the rest of the song to the others.

That was when the band's problems became more obvious. Gales seems to be a still-developing musician in search of a style, and his leads sounded cluttered and somewhat chaotic after the well-tooled elegance of King's solos; the man sounded flustered, sometimes even desperate. Drummer Harrison Jefferson and bassist Melvin Lee were content to lay down a run-of-the-mill backbeat most of the time, and keyboardist Jessie Dodson was either unable or too intimidated to create solos of more than run-of-the-mill quality. When King was on, his forceful personality and dynamic musicianship carried the show; the rest of the time, both music and enthusiasm lagged significantly.

It's difficult to say whether a more nurturing leader would have produced better results, although what the late guitarist Sammy Lawhorn had to say on the subject seems pertinent: "I was never the kind to look at you and frown up, you know, 'What'd you do?' You make a mistake, look like that to you and frown. I would look up and smile at you, let you know I heard your mistake. Then I don't kill your spirit, because after I kill your spirit you make me sound just as bad as you do. 'Cause when you make that mistake, you know not to do it again; you learn something."

Despite the glory of King's skill and the unique vision he brings to his music, over the course of a night the tension gives his show an unpleasant edge for those aware of what's going on. One was thankful that the half-expected blowup didn't occur; in California not too long ago King announced to the audience he was so disgusted with his band that he was going to quit music that very night and retire to a life of fishing.

No amount of talent makes that worth putting up with. As if to drive the point home, the band billed at B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera along with King, Chicago's Willie Kent and the Gents, turned in a competent set of blues standards made special by Kenny Barker's keyboard work and the solid backing of drummer Tim Taylor, who's advanced remarkably over the past few years. There was nothing spectacular about Kent's show, but his good nature and the relaxed ease of the band were a relief after King's regal display. King is one of today's premier bluesmen, but if he tried to pull that Caesar routine at Mr. Tee's Lounge at Lake and Saint Louis, which is Kent's regular gig, he might find more than he bargained for. The same hands that can craft a delicate filigree out of cast iron can also bust a face, and Albert King isn't the only guy on the line with hard fists.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.

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