King Of The Blues Guitar (Stax '69) Rating: A
As a lefty 250 pound African American who played a righty Gibson Flying V (well before metal guys made that model commonplace), Albert King was bound to stand out from the crowd. Throw in some fine songs and typically stellar support from Booker T. & the M.G.'s and the Memphis Horns, and it's little wonder that King's Stax debut, Born Under A Bad Sign, is considered a classic. Still, as Albert Goldman writes in the liner notes to this compilation, which contains every song from Born Under A Bad Sign as well as 6 others from his '66-'68 prime: "The most fascinating feature of these recordings is Albert King's guitar playing, which sets a new standard for purity of style; no pick, few notes and every phrase a statement." Indeed, King had a spare, economical style and a talent for note bending that was truly unique, and there's not a single wasted note among these 17 songs, which fly by in a concise 52 minutes (the cd is generous but not too generous as many cds are these days). Cool lyrics like "I been down so long you know down don't bother me" ("Down Don't Bother Me") and "if it wasn't for bad luck, you know I wouldn't have no luck at all" ("Born Under A Bad Sign," later covered by Cream and many others) add to the experience as well, while the sass and attitude of "The Hunter" would make KISS proud. Though not especially distinctive, King had a strong, supple voice, and the Stax connection makes sexy songs such as "Funk Shun," "Personal Manager," "As The Years Go Passing By," and "You Sure Drive A Hard Bargain" as much "soul" as "blues" music. Elsewhere, "The Very Thought Of You" sounds like a pop standard, and "I Almost Lost My Mind" also sees King crooning in the guise of a pop balladeer, though this time he adds his customary cutting guitar as well. Still, though those songs add a little variety, King is at his bluesy best on harder-edged songs such as "Laundromat Blues," "Oh, Pretty Woman" (not the Roy Orbison song), "Crosscut Saw," "Cold Feet," and "I Love Lucy," the latter a love letter not to Lucille Ball or his significant other but to his guitar. Alas, for whatever reason, despite this enormous man's immense influence on the likes of Eric Clapton, Michael Bloomfield, Jimi Hendrix (another lefty who played a righty guitar upside down), and Stevie Ray Vaughan, King has faded from public consciousness somewhat (apparently he doesn't even warrant an entry in the latest Rolling Stone Album Guide, presumably to make room for Vanilla Ice and Rob Sheffield's brilliantly incisive review of Pink Floyd's Animals: "all songs about pigs are lame"). Still, that's precisely why I wrote this review, and why you should buy this first-rate compilation right away, as few albums are as aptly titled as this one. Update: King's profile was raised considerably when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 2013.
Live Wire/Blues Power (Stax '68) Rating: A
Recorded live at the Fillmore in 1968 (man I would've loved to have been a Fillmore concert goer back in those days), this is a great live album that's an excellent companion piece to King Of The Blues Guitar (or Born Under A Bad Sign; either one will do). That album had great soul-influenced songs and showed off King's great guitar playing as well as the brilliant backing band of Booker T. & The MG's, but this album is really about Albert King's guitar playing (the 5-piece backing band provides solid support throughout but King's guitar dominates) and is a straight up blues album, though it's still certainly soulful. True, the slow songs are kinda samey, as are the fast songs, as King's range was rather limited, but boy was he good at what he did, and this live album shows him at his absolute best, both with his guitar playing and in the charismatic way that he works the crowd. Containing a mere six songs, this largely instrumental album showcases King's stinging, emotional leads and is highlighted by two slower, atmospheric extended pieces in "Blues Power" (like King Of The Blues Guitar this album is aptly titled!) and "Blues At Sunrise." The former is particularly memorable due to King's "everybody understands the blues" sermon, but his guitar also catches fire on faster numbers such as "Night Stomp" and "Look Out" (this whole song is basically a shit hot guitar solo alongside a shuffle groove). Elsewhere, he covers Herbie Hancock ("Watermelon Man") and that other King, B.B. ("Please Love Me"), but believe me these versions end up being 100% Albert King when all is said and done. Long story short, this is a great (if unfortunately short) live album, because King is a great performer and guitar player, and if you like this album you should also check out Wednesday Night in San Francisco and Thursday Night in San Francisco, both of which were released much later but whose songs originated from the same Fillmore concerts.