CD Review of One Kind Favor by B.B. King
Recommended if you like
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Label
Geffen
B.B. King: One Kind Favor

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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O
nce upon a time, getting old was something rock musicians did in private, after they’d outlived their usefulness to their audience and their corporate minders. They didn’t release albums; they schlepped their own gear between supper-club gigs, and prayed for any endorsement deals they could get their hands on. You might find Chubby Checker Beef Jerky and Smokey Robinson’s Frozen Jambalaya in different sections of the grocery store, but they both carry the same sad, cautionary flavor.

All that’s changed, though, thanks to the gradual graying of rock’s audience – not to mention the rising trend of aging acts hooking up with whatever roots-friendly producer they can get their hands on (usually Rick Rubin) to record a back-to-basics record, usually designed to erase the memory of the inferior product they’ve been pushing for the last couple of decades. Thank you, Johnny Cash.

The latest artist to receive the victory-lap treatment is B.B. King, whose latest set, One Kind Favor, finds him in very good company indeed. The lion’s share of the album’s pre-release buzz focused on the fact that King had lined up T Bone Burnett to produce, but Burnett’s just an afterthought compared to the band that was assembled to play on these tracks: Jim Keltner on drums, Nathan East on bass, and Dr. John on piano, all of them performing live in the studio with King – who, even at 82 and with diabetes, still sounds like he could kick all our asses before breakfast.

To say it’s been a while since King cut a classic record would be a charitable understatement. He’s undoubtedly one of the greatest, if not the greatest, living blues guitarist, but for some time now, he’s demonstrated little regard for what he plays, or with whom. Since joining the MCA/Universal/Geffen/whatever fold in the ‘90s, he’s been subjected to a succession of gimmicky high-profile projects – like Deuces Wild, the 1998 duets record that found him facing off with great blues legends such as Paul Carrack and Heavy D, or his collaboration with Eric Clapton, the remarkably poorly produced Riding with the King. On every album, it was evident that King hadn’t lost his touch – and just as evident that nobody knew what to do with it anymore.

B.B. King

With Burnett behind the boards, terrible production isn’t a problem; he’s been coaxing natural performances out of artists for decades, but this job couldn’t have been more complicated than simply showing up and waiting for the engineer to set the levels. What’s funny is how closely the performances here mirror those on pretty much any other latter-day King record – even stripped of any sheen, they’re almost supernaturally flawless. If you didn’t know better, you’d be tempted to think overdubs and/or digital trickery were at work, but no; this is just the sound of what happens when old pros get together.

Yes, King and company sound perfect; they do not, however, sound like they’re stretching, and while that’s a perfectly acceptable state of affairs for an octogenarian recording his umpteenth album, it ultimately makes for less than exciting listening. We’ve heard King do this before, and if his stinging leads and gravel-lined shout haven’t lost any authority, neither does One Kind Favor show us a side of either we haven’t heard before. Still, as late-period blues records go, this is one for the books, and if King never records again, he can rest knowing he went out on as high a note as could be expected.

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