Where authenticity in music is concerned, Albert King rests untouched. Unlike that other King guy, he never made love to his six-string in an ad spot for Burger King. He never opened a theme restaurant/theater to serve as a tour stop for cutting-edge acts such as Toto, BTO and the Kottonmouth Kings. But to so many suburban boys on both sides of the Atlantic, he was a father of the modern blues, the living embodiment of a mythical manic lifestyle. Kicking and screaming since 1923, he died in 1992 after a night of gambling, and the liner notes tell us he lived like “a true bluesman to the end.” Critics can endlessly debate whether someone’s musical conviction is genuine, but King’s catalog is “real,” which in this case means sittin’-out-on-your-Mississippi-Delta-porch-in-1945-swiggin’-homegrown-moonshine real, beyond reproach.
We’ve been told that American blues set the foundation modern jazz and pop, though the gap between Robert Johnson and Robbie Williams makes me want to avoid endorsing such far-reaching statements. What is it about the low-fi moans of 45s by Johnson, Charley Patton, Leadbelly that’s still inspiring? It is the emotional weight of intimate confessions by these men whose lives truly had no real potential in the violently segregated United States. Their cries sit preserved and re-mastered by time, and rockers the world over (Jon Spencer, Jack White, Mick Jagger in his own sad way) still romanticize those who sold their souls to liquor and the devil to make those guitars scream. Current blues-rock revivalists/ironists, who recall the woes of a people they’re so far removed from, hold a pose that is every bit as considered as Justin Timberlake preening topless on glossy monthlies.
Beyond consideration of his respective place in history, this 1978 Chicago nightclub date proves that Albert King could control a room like few others. King’s blues are edgy and driving even as they follow the same long established 1-4-5-4-1 chord pattern. His backup band lays down competent but uninspired riffs as a platform for King’s guitar to reaffirm order. His playing certainly doesn’t sound unlike anything you’ve heard before. In fact, it sounds exactly how one would expect blues guitar to sound — lots of strings bending under a slight distortion. The most notable aspect of the set is the confidence with which King strikes each note. Of course, the man had been playing the blues for almost forty years at this point, and there are only so many notes to be played in a standard E scale, but each pluck enters with a masculine force that makes the rest of the group sound like a high school jazz band. His vocal style is truly amazing, as bass heavy growls climb from the pit of his gut into living rooms everywhere.
The most interesting aspects of this album, however, are personal comments from King himself, both in interview and in performance. The man clearly liked to have control over every aspect of his show. “Stop the mikes from humming, please,” he gripes to the sound crew during “Blues at Sunrise,” “been trying to tell you that for 45 minutes.” Four interview tracks build on his own legend. “The houses I lived in, some of ’em you could lay up in bed and count the stars,” he says, discussing how young people with their cars and “$200 a month” apartments do not truly understand the blues. By listening to the experience apparent in his voice, a listener can hear evidence of the socioeconomic circumstances King had to overcome in the mid-century South.
He is first and foremost a musician, not a cultural icon to be worshiped and misrepresented with big name business deals. “I’m just as far from being rich as you are … I don’t think I wanna be rich,” he tells the interviewer during the album’s final track, and there is no doubt that King now makes his axe wail for downtrodden souls in the afterlife. For those not keen on pure blues, this album won’t serve as a conversion. But to hear a past master carry his dignity into the later years is a great thing indeed. To the untrained ear this is a standard blues set, but the precision in King’s details reveals why so many still consider him the master.