Widely regarded as one of the best guitarists of all time, blues legend B.B. King is still recording at age 82.
B.B. King and his guitar Lucille have been making hits together since 1951. Most people, when asked to name a blues player, will cite King first. The standard notion is that age is no barrier to playing the blues, but many veterans are content to coast. King, however, recently released One Kind Favor, which gave him his highest-ever debut on the Billboard charts while demonstrating how one master manages to remain timeless.
These are lean times for soul and blues albums. Most years, there's only one or two I expect to ever play again. But just when you think the sources have dried up, everybody rushes in at once. This year, Al Green and Raphael Saadiq have turned in the finest possible modern soul, while Janiva Magness, Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials, Taj Mahal and Elvin Bishop have added outstanding blues albums of their own. King, at 82, doesn't have anything to prove, but he up and delivers One Kind Favor, his best work since his batches of duets a dozen or so years ago. It's interesting that the most funky, modern track is also likely the oldest: Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean."
Because it was produced by T-Bone Burnett, One Kind Favor not only evokes Burnett's refurbishment of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss last year, but Rick Rubin's recasting of Johnny Cash, with its intimation of mortality and roots. One Kind Favor stands alone, however, in reaffirming King's unique power as a star and venerable performer. More than any other icon, King is about the music and not himself. After all, he is large and contains multitudes of blues.
One Kind Favor is all cover versions, none previously recorded by King. When he savors "Waiting for Your Call" by T-Bone Walker or several numbers by Lonnie Johnson, King seems to pick players like himself — go-your-own-way guys who wore their savvy lightly and enjoyed jazzy licks. But he also takes control of Chicago (Howlin' Wolf in "How Many More Years") and Detroit (John Lee Hooker in "Blues Before Sunrise"). King even puts his stamp on a couple of tunes by the Mississippi Sheiks, who would hardly be recognized as a blues outfit by today's narrow standards. Not that they aren't relevant: The most contemporary moment on the album is that group's "The World Gone Wrong," wherein King declares, "I can't be good no more, baby / Honey, 'cause the world is goin' wrong." I'll buy that. Or, maybe, sell it.
King shows stately vigor on One Kind Favor. He's reflective –- he even makes "Midnight Blues" sound like it's more about time than sadness -– and, though often anguished, he's never angry. Even in songs where he's abandoned and abused, King prefers to celebrate the scornful object of his afection, or take on the sympathetic role of a soul-man supplicant. All of this is appealing without any pander, but what matters most is that B.B. King feels he has something to prove this time out. If only, as the Mississippi Sheiks' song puts it, he's "sitting on top of the world."