Friday, September 19, 2008

Old vets B.B. King, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith still bringing the blues


Two new blues CDs from two grizzled old pros crossed my desk recently and they were a much welcomed reprieve from much of the mediocre crap that passes for blues these days.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that one of the CDs was from the legendary B.B. King, who turned 83 years young on Sept. 16.

B.B. King has never gone away for very long in his storied career, but his new recording, "One Kind Favor," (Geffen Records) represents sort of a comeback for the King of the Blues. Much of the credit goes to producer T. Bone Burnett, who tried to duplicate the sound of King's recordings from the 1950s with much success.

Wisely, Burnett bypassed the current formula of pairing blues legends with rock stars, a technique that might sell CDs, but often produces bland, if not lifeless, recordings.

Instead, Burnett recruited a crack band of session pros, including Nathan East on stand up acoustic bass and Jim Keltner on drums. Dr. John, who contributes on piano, is the best known band member, but he never steals the show, leaving the spotlight for B.B. and Lucille, his trusty guitar.

Speaking of King, his playing and vocals are in fine form, as usual. And, the song selection of old blues covers are impeccable, including songs by T-Bone Walker, Lemon Jefferson, John Lee Hooker, Chester Burnett (Howlin' Wolf)and Lonnie Johnson, to name a few.

The other CD comes from Willie "Big Eyes" Smith. "Born in Arkansas" (Big Eye Records) is state-of-the-art Chicago blues from Muddy Waters' former drummer from the 1960s and 1970s. Smith also played with Bo Diddley, Johnny Shines, James Cotton, Pinetop Perkins, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells and Howlin' Wolf, a veritable who's who of blues legends.

On "Born in Arkansas," Smith is backed by veterans of the Chicago blues scene, including Bob Stroger on bass, Barrellhouse Chuck on piano, Billy Flynn on guitar, Little Frank Karkowski on guitar and Smith's son, Kenny "Beedy Eyes" Smith on drums.

"Big Eyes" Smith contributes vocals and harmonica on the recording, which doesn't stray far from the tried and true sound of Chicago blues. That's meant as a compliment of the highest order ... if anyone else does a better job with this genre of blues, I'd like to hear it. Certainly, the old man himself, Muddy Waters, would be proud of his former band mate if he were alive to tell us.

--Jeff Stevens



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