Riding without the King, B.B. King Blues Band still captures The Soul of the King on new album, tour

It’s been four years now since “The King of the Blues” B.B. King moved on to the big blues gig in the sky and what some might consider the better world of which he frequently sang, but the band that backed him has continued to play on, bringing their music to stages around the world and, now, to the headphones and speakers of fans everywhere with an album entitled The Soul of the King (Ruf Records).

A mix of King covers and band originals, the album finds the band — with its collective experience of more than 100 years playing not only with King but with the likes of Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, James Brown, Pops and Mavis Staples, Buddy Guy, Carey Bell, Bobby Rush, Charlie Musselwhite, Otis Clay, and Isaac Hayes, among others — joined by guests ranging from blues veterans such as Taj Mahal, Kenny Neal, and Joe Louis Walker to established acts like Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Diunna Greenleaf, and Jonn Del Toro Richardson, and rising stars like Michael Lee of The Voice fame.

While several of the tracks will of course be familiar to fans of King and the blues more generally, including King hits such as “Sweet Little Angel”, “There Must Be a Better World Somewhere”, “Paying the Cost to Be the Boss”, and “The Thrill is Gone”, the album also allows members of the band to step forward and shine in a way that may just never have been possible sharing the stage with B.B., not because B.B. would intentionally deprive his band members of that attention (frequently giving them opportunities to solo, in addition to opening each show with a few warm-up songs before King made his appearance) but simply because of B.B.’s commanding presence, which helped earn the bluesman so many Blues Music/W.C. Handy Awards for Entertainer of the Year from The Blues Foundation that they named the category after him (now the B.B. King Entertainer of the Year Award)!

Led by trumpet player James “Boogaloo” (a nickname given him by B.B. himself) Bolden, who played with B.B. for more than 35 years, the band also features Russell Jackson on bass, Darrell Lavigne on keyboards, Wilbert Crosby on guitar, Herman and Brandon Jackson on drums, and several additional horn players, including both Eric Demmer and B.B.’s nephew Walter King on saxophone, with a few members of the band also taking turns on lead vocals when not handled by one of their many guests.

It’s bassist Russell Jackson’s gravelly vocals,  in fact, that help get things underway on the tough, slow blues of an opening “Irene Irene” that features Kenny Wayne Shepherd on guitar, before bluesman Kenny Neal digs in on both vocals and guitar for King’s “Sweet Little Angel”. 

Diunna Greenleaf delivers some soulful vocals on a graceful, swaying “There Must Be a Better World Somewhere” (Dr. John, Doc Pomus), with Taj Mahal and Mary Griffin offering up a terrific duet on a jazzy, swinging cover of “Paying the Cost to Be the Boss”,  Taj’s vocals adding just the right gruffness to the track to balance the airiness of his guitar and the band’s horns.

Guitarist and singer Joe Louis Walker contributes a punchy original (“Regal Blues (A Tribute to the King)”) clearly inspired by King with its lyrics like “well, when I first heard Lucille, you know it knocked me out/ ah, went out and bought me a guitar, tried to figure it out” and references to King classics like “Rock Me Baby” and “It’s My Own Fault, Baby” as well as some great King-like playing from Walker. And newcomer Michael Lee closes out the album with a passionate, Jonny Lang-like reprise of “The Thrill is Gone”, the King track that quickly caught the attention of both the judges and greater public during Lee’s appearance on the TV show The Voice.

While many of the other originals tend to also be pretty consistent with King’s sound and could easily be envisioned performed by The King himself, including the swaying, “Same Old Blues”-like “She’s the One” written and sung by sax player Demmer and the jazzy “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” and “Pocket Full of Money”, both with vocals by Boogaloo, the remaining tracks allow the band to stretch out in other interesting directions, including a funky “Taking Care of of Business” that finds Boogaloo and Jonn Del Toro Richardson backing Russell Jackson on vocals, a New Orleans-sounding “Low Down” that features some deep horns from trumpeter Lamar Boulet and tuba player Kirk Joseph, and a sentimental ode to departed bluesmen in “Becoming the Blues” with Greenleaf on backing vocals and Neal on harmonica, the latter two tracks also showcasing Russell Jackson on vocals.

The loss of an iconic figure on the scale of King would probably have sent the members of other longtime bands in many different directions, so it’s great to see (and hear) these guys carrying on, both through this album, which very much captures not only the soul but also the spirit of the much-missed King of the Blues, and a U.S. tour on which they’re joined by Lee and B.B.’s daughter Claudette King as guest vocalists (with Lee also on guitar). 

Be sure to check them out when you can!

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