Friday, May 15, 2015

RIP B.B. King: Understanding the Blues

B.B. King
I'll be honest, B.B. King was never my favorite blues man. But what he was for me, and I'm sure many others my age, is the first (and in some cases only) "real" old school blues artist we heard. He was always the most accessible of the generations before Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Part of that is because his influence is so deeply ingrained in the blues influenced rock we all hear to this day, that hearing King just felt familiar from the very first time you heard him. That one note that bends and sings between verses and in the solo? Yeah, that's him. That late night feeling, smooth vibrato that gently shakes your soul? That's him too. That ability to have fun with heavy and heartbreaking songs, finding joy in the sadness of being human without diminishing the anguish? Well, that's what the blues is all about, but he embodied it and put it front and center.  People die every day, most of them not famous. But this isn't about his fame, it's about his impact, his influence and what he leaves behind beyond the people that actually knew him. I'll just leave it at that.

So, in lieu of my regular weekly Spotify playlist, I'll instead share B.B. King's final studio album, released in 2008, One Kind Favor. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, this stripped down collection of blues classics is without a doubt my favorite thing King ever did. You still get his trademark guitar style and his baritone wailing voice, and even the big band sound, but it also has a dusty wooden stage feel to it that I find essential to roots music of all kinds. Plus, there's always something special about hearing artists late in their career capture something new in a different context like this, like the last recordings from Johnny Cash. This is on that level, really. It's a little eerie to listen to this album today, with "See That My Grave is Kept Clean" opening it up. But it's also the perfect album for today and to remember him with. Yeah, it's not "The Thrill is Gone," Paying the Cost to Be the Boss," "Humming Bird" or any of his other well known songs, but it's the most distilled version of what he was about that I can imagine. It's like the New Orleans funeral he deserves, really. So, do yourself a favor, if you're a fan, listen to this start to finish at least once today. If you're not a fan, do it anyway. Find that joy in the ridiculous misery of human existence. Understand the blues.

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