At this late stage, B.B. King towers over the genre that inspired his name ("B.B." standing for "blues boy"). His closest competitor as a widely known veteran blues standard-bearer is Buddy Guy, who, at 11 years King's junior, is as much inheritor as rival.
King will turn 83 in September and, though he's still been unusually prolific at such an advanced age, his past decade of recording has followed a familiar path: His last studio album, 2005's 80 was, like 1997's high-profile Deuces Wild, a typical "all-star" duet collection. His biggest recent seller, 2000's double-platinum Riding With the King, was an album-long collaboration with Eric Clapton. His last solo studio album, 2003's Reflections, was a far-flung standards record.
All of which makes King's new album, One Kind Favor, such a nice surprise. One Kind Favor dispenses with crutches and gimmicks to embrace a high concept notable for its simplicity: The blues' greatest living figure playing a collection of the genre's signature songs, titles that were meaningful to King when his career really took off in the early 1950s and songs that took him back even further to his days as a childhood music fan.
The album is produced by T Bone Burnett, the roots connoisseur who has presided over such recent commercial and/or artistic triumphs as the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and last year's Raising Sand, a duet album between bluegrass belle Allison Krauss and arena-rock legend Robert Plant.
Here, Burnett pushes King into a selection of ace songs and provides a simple rhythm and horn section for companionable support, then seems to get out of King's way. For better or worse, Burnett doesn't seem to shape the sound into an identifiable producer's take on roots tradition. The upside is that One Kind Favor is a true document of contemporary B.B. King in a classic setting. The downside is that the record is probably unlikely to garner the kind of crossover audience Burnett's other recent projects have found.
One Kind Favor opens with "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean," the Blind Lemon Jefferson and Furry Lewis copyright that provides the album's title. Here the one-time acoustic blues lament is given a strutting but laidback New Orleans-style arrangement, with Dr. John embracing the sideman role on piano. This opener suggests an album of adventurous arrangements, but instead King and Burnett play things straight. (Though Howlin' Wolf's "How Many More Years" is given a more swinging and less incendiary reading than the original.)
In terms of repertoire, One Kind Favor dips back to other early country blues selections in the form of a couple of 1930s' Mississippi Sheiks titles, "Sitting on Top of the World" and "The World Is Gone Wrong," the album is heavy with more immediate King influences, particularly from jazz-blues stalwart Lonnie Johnson and electric blues pioneer T-Bone Walker.
King's own still-spry piercing leads and charismatic voice are out front, but, perhaps surprisingly, it's the latter that is ultimately the most important. King the blues storyteller comes through on "The World Is Gone Wrong." But the standout tracks might be the two longest on the album — patient readings of Walker's "Waiting for Your Call" and Johnson's (Elvis identified) "Tomorrow Night." On the former, King's nimble guitar sets the stage, but his soul-blues testifying evokes a different old Beale Street cohort, Bobby "Blue" Bland. On the album-closing "Tomorrow Night," King is deliberate and magisterial, with a soul sax rather than a screaming Lucille taking him home.
The result is a more-satisfying-than-expected straight blues record, one whose modesty works in its artistic favor. But, without even Burnett giving outsiders a flashy conceptual or musical entry point, you have to wonder if this bare-bones testament can find the kind of audience it deserves.
— Chris Herrington