Artist: The BB King Blues Band
Album: The Soul of the King
Release date: May 10, 2019
The deal. Blues great B.B. King died in May 2015, leaving behind a legacy of stellar uptown blues. Unlike many of his blues brethren, King worked with a huge band. His voice and guitar were always front-and-center, but not for the entire show. Instead, King would briefly defer to his band, letting them attempt to steal the spotlight, before King pulled the audience back, pretty much on command, like his beloved guitar Lucille was also a yo-yo. If you can’t imagine what that sounds like, go take just under 35 minutes to listen to King’s classic Live At the Regal. As the band name promises, the BB King Blues Band is King’s band, and here they work with a variety of artists, part tribute to King and part tribute to themselves.
Being a backing band is a thankless job. If you do your job correctly, people don’t really notice you. So one of the nice things about this album is that you get to hear the band shine. The songs are a mix of King-adjacent tunes and some originals. One of the strongest songs is “Low Down,” a New Orleans-style funk, featuring trumpeter Lamar Boulet and tuba-player Kirk Joseph, of the Dirty Dozen Brass band. Vocals are handled by BB King Band bassist Russell Jackson (who also wrote the tune). It’s a catchy song that isn’t particularly bluesy and which King probably wouldn’t have tackled. Which is part of what makes it so good; there’s no King association to compare it against.
But even when the band does tackle songs that would have been more in King’s wheelhouse, like “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow,” written by James Boogaloo Bolden and Eric Demmer, both members of the BB King Band horn section, you can hear how good everyone is. The track is driven by, as you might expect given the authors, a very strong horn chart, but keyboardist Darrell Lavigne adds a beautiful piano line under the song, and contributes a solo. Bolden handles the vocals, and while his voice is nowhere near as powerful as King’s, that only helps to avoid direct comparisons. Plus, the song doesn’t even feature a guitar solo, which also takes the track out of King territory. It stands tall on its own.
Straight talk. The challenge of a tribute album like this is when the tracks and artists veer too close to King. Because very few people can touch him in his prime (or even slightly past it). So when singer/guitarist Kenny Neal takes on “Sweet Little Angel,” an iconic King track, it’s a tough draw for Neal. The guitar and vocals are good. Neal has a great blues voice, but it just isn’t King’s. And his guitar playing is lyrical, but lacks King’s punch.
Having said that, one of the album’s strongest tracks is “The Thrill is Gone,” performed by singer/guitarist Michael Lee, of The Voice TV show. It’s a killer cover of King’s defining tune, here performed a tiny bit faster and funkier than the original. The Band locks in behind Lee, pushing the track. Lee’s vocals are bluesy without evoking King, and his guitar manages to capture some of King’s sting. It’s a much, much better version of the song than the one Lee included on his own debut, which is unfortunate for his otherwise excellent album, but good news for this one.
The confession. It took me a while to appreciate this album. It’s got a lot of different sounds and vocalists, and while it’s all in firm blues territory, it can feel a bit disjointed at first. But after a few spins, you start to recognize the singers and the album comes together a bit more. Of course, by the time that happened for me, it was July.
Closing arguments. I never thought much about King’s band, or really any artist’s backing group. Which is why I love the idea of an album dedicated to the people who supported a musician. It’s cool to hear the songs and voices behind a great artist. I also appreciated the band’s ability to diverge from the King sound and explore other genres. Partially because if you want to hear the King band tackling his work, you’ll probably just go back to the original recordings, but also just to hear talented musicians stepping out to the front of the stage and stretching out in a different direction.
So much amazing music comes out all of the time. I review what I can as quickly as I can, working my physical and digital piles as efficiently as possible, but things fall between the cracks. Rather than giving up on things that are a little past their prime, contemporary-review-standards-wise, I’m going back for the overflow that deserves to be heard — even if it’s a little late.