B.B. King: “One Kind Favor”
B.B. King kicks off his new album with a cover of the Blind Lemon Jefferson tune “See That My Grave is Kept Clean,” so you’d be forgiven for thinking that the 82 year-old bluesman is borrowing a page out of Johnny Cash’s playbook, quietly shifting toward introspection and facing his mortality head on in his later years. Actually, though, that couldn’t be more wrong, as King isn’t thinking about his death so much as his youth, and he isn’t taking stock so much as burning the whole thing down, finding fresh inspiration in the classic blues chestnuts that he grew up with but making music that’s thunderously powerful and searingly vivid.
One Kind Favor is his best album in ages, and, ironically, it’s the one that seems the least interested in being a comeback. The blues legend has toiled for a decade or more with any number of producers and collaborators, turning out forgettable duets albums and studio projects polished with a smart but dull sheen, going through all the motions of a veteran itching for a comeback but never really sounding like he was hungry for it. Only adding to the irony is that he’s finally achieved a comeback worthy of his name with an album that deliberately harkens back to his earliest albums, one that recreates the sound of 1940s and 50s swing-blues with uncanny accuracy but has all the grit and fervor of a master musician entering the studio with a crack band and knocking off a quick, unfussy, and absolutely killer set of songs.
Of course it isn’t too surprising that King’s guide here is T-Bone Burnett, the man who’s recently masterminded twilit, latter-day milestones from Robert Plant and John Mellencamp. Burnett has produced other fine albums, too, but never anything as good as this; like Bob Dylan’s Love & Theft and Modern Times, One Kind Favor sublimely recalls an era long gone and a kind of music mostly forgotten, but it’s neither as devlishly funny and unhinged as the former, nor as meditative and mystical as the latter. Instead, it’s just a killer blues album, a monstrously tough, lean record that’s straightforward and uncomplicated in its vision, but still cuts to the bone. It swings, it stings, it shoots from the hip and hits right in the gut– a towering achievement from a true master, one who’s able to live with one foot in the past but create music that’s totally of the present.
Those looking for King’s meditations on mortality or anything as self-conscious as a “legacy” album might initially be disappointed; this isn’t anything as calculated as all that, simply a hard-hitting blues album. But that’s what makes it such a thrill, and indeed, that’s what makes King such an astounding talent. One senses that he made this album not because he wanted to make some sort of a statement, but simply because there was work to be done, and he’s still the best man for the job.
And so he and Burnett have unearthed some of their favorite blues gems from yesteryear and given them the treatment they deserve– rich, spontaneous, lively performances by King and a backing band that knows whose show it is and acts accordingly, offering supple but never flashy accompaniment. Dr. John plays piano, Jim Keltner (and on some tracks, Jay Bellerose) plays drums, and Nathan East plays bass, and a full brass section provides these rollicking, roiling performances with a rich, seductive, and suitably playful backdrop. The songs are straight-to-the-bone blues numbers, and King lets loose with equal parts youthful ferocity and aged wisdom and restraint, showcasing the full breadth of his powers by singing with robust vigor and playing the hell out of his guitar.
It’s a stomping, stellar blues album that rocks hard, plays it loose, and makes it all sound like the easiest thing in the world. Which is, of course, how the blues are supposed to sound– natural, effortless, unadorned. And that alone would make it a fine addition to King’s catalog, but the fact that it’s got more energy and fire than anything he’s done in years makes it a landmark, and, in its own way, the ideal career capstone from a true bluesman. One hopes it’s just the beginning of his latter-day renaissance.