Archive for the ‘blues’ Category

Album Review: Stevie Ray Vaughan — The Fire Meets the Fury

Thursday, April 16th, 2015

To a lot of people in the 1980s, Stevie Ray Vaughan was the guitar hero they had been looking for. Seemingly bursting on the scene without warning, the Texas guitarist had in fact been paying his dues for some time, and he was quite well known locally and regionally. His pre-fame activities included a stint in a band called the Nightcrawlers, where he was lead guitarist but not lead singer; that task was ably filled by bassist (and later songwriting collaborator) Doyle Bramhall II. That band recorded an album that remains unreleased to this day.

Vaughan went on to more acclaim, eventually capturing the notice of David Bowie. Vaughan played lead guitar on the blockbuster album Let’s Dance, and was in rehearsals with Bowie and band to play on the subsequent tour (bootlegs of these rehearsals do exist). As one story goes, Bowie forbade band members – especially SRV – to do interviews about their own work while on the tour, and so Vaughan, having just finished recording his debut Texas Flood, quit the band days before the tour was to begin.

Vaughan’s albums were released to greater and greater acclaim (and sales), and he can rightly be credited for ushering in a new era of appreciation for hotshot guitarists. But as his fame grew, so did his problems with drugs and alcohol. By the time I first saw him in concert (November 7, 1985 at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre), he was in the depths of addiction, yet he showed signs of having turned a corner of sorts: throughout the show he was uncharacteristically loquacious, making repeated comments of a positive and uplifting nature. Mere months after this date, SRV returned to Atlanta, this time not for a concert but for a four-week rehab program at Peachford Hospital, mere blocks from my home (no, we never saw him around the neighborhood).

Newly clean and with a markedly improved attitude toward life, Vaughan’s playing only improved, and his stature grew further. By 1989 he was taking part in a co-headlining concert tour with Jeff Beck; the tur was billed as “The Fire Meets the Fury.” The shows consisted of a set by each of the acclaimed guitar slingers, and often ended with them appearing onstage together for an encore.

Near the end of the tour were dates in Albuquerque, New Mexico (November 28) and Denver (November 29); both were recorded for broadcast on the Westwood One radio network. Highlights from those two shows are collected on The Fire Meets the Fury, a new single-disc live concert set. (The error-filled liner notes erroneously refer to these dates as the tour’s final performances when in fact two more dates – Los Angeles and Oakland – followed.)

While none of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s onstage collaborations with Jeff Beck are featured on the set, The Fire Meets the Fury nonetheless represents an excellent live document of SRV’s playing near the end of his life (he’d perish in a tragic helicopter accident nine months after these dates). The compilers have wisely chosen not to duplicate songs from the shows, so the finished disc (six tracks from New Mexico followed by five from Colorado) approximates a full concert set.

Vaughan and band – which by this time included keyboardist Reese Wynans alongside mainstays Chris “Whipper” Layton on drums and bassist Tommy Shannon – are in fine form throughout, and the set list runs the gamut from the hits (a very brief opening run-through of “The House is Rockin’”) to the classic covers (“Superstition,” a song that Stevie Wonder had originally written for Jeff Beck; and Jimi Hendrix‘s “Voodoo Chile”). The Hendrix cover in particular is an extended affair, running in excess of eleven minutes. Another long cut is “Life Without You,” wherein SRV engages in a monologue about his journey to sobriety (the title of his then-current album In Step was a reference to his working through Alcoholics Anonymous’ twelve step program).

While there are other live albums in the man’s catalog (1986′s Live Alive and the 1983 Albert King collaboration In Session, to name two of the most well-known), the well-recorded The Fire Meets the Fury is the only officially released document of late-period Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Note #1: There also exists a promo-only CD issued by Epic and also titled The Fire Meets the Fury; compiling then-current and back-catalog studio tracks from both Vaughan and Jeff Beck, it was intended to promote the then-current tour and should not be confused with this release.

Note #2: This album was also released in the UK as a 2LP (vinyl) set with the same track listing, featuring tracks from the Albuquerque show on one record, and the Denver performance on the other. My review concerns the CD release.

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Album Review: Harvey Mandel — Snake Box

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015

Meaning absolutely no disrespect to the artists to whom I refer, the music scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s was filled with what one might call second-string guitarists. These guys (and at this point in history, nearly the entire roster was male) weren’t on the notoriety level of Jimmy Page, John McLaughlin, or Eric Clapton. But at their best, they were as good, even if their music was known (much less heard) by fewer listeners. Some of the names that come to mind include fusion great Larry Coryell; three of pre-pedestrian Fleetwood Mac‘s guitarists (Peter Green, Danny Kirwan, Jeremy Spencer); and Canned Heat‘s Harvery Mandel (I am certain readers can think of many others).

Alongside his work with Canned Heat (he was a member of the group’s “second classic” lineup circa 1969-1970, and rejoined briefly on several later – and less noteworthy – occasions), Mandel maintained a solo career. Between 1968 and 1972, Mandel released six solo albums. Five from this period – all but the ’72 release Get Off in Chicago – have now been released in a set titled Snake Box (Mandel’s nickname is “The Snake”). While all of the original vinyl albums (Cristo Redentor from 1968, Righteous from 1969, 1970′s Games Guitars Play, 1971′s Baby Batter, and The Snake from 1972) can still be acquired for small sums (i.e. often under $5), none of the albums has had a recent CD/digital release. So the new box set presents them all together, each housed in an LP reproduction style sleeve, in one tidy package.

Snake Box also includes a rare onstage recording called Live at the Matrix, a set from Christmas Eve 1968 in San Francisco that features an all-star lineup of Frisco locals: Mandel with Jerry Garcia, Elvin Bishop, Steve Miller, Mickey Hart, and John Chambers.

Mandel was and remains a guitarist of great versatility, and one with a wide stylistic vision. Nominally a blues player, he sounds comfortable in any number of musical idioms. Widely recognized as an originator of the two-hand tapping technique (see also: Eddie Van Halen and Stanley Jordan), Mandel sounded as comfortable playing jazz-inflected licks as he did within the context of blues (or blues rock).

Mandel’s ability to trade in multiple styles resulted in albums that could seem all over the place. His interests and influences on these disc are so vast that it’s quite difficult to pin down a Mandel style. As often as not working with an ensemble, Mandel created albums that were cohesive wholes, not merely showcases for his guitar playing. For example, the first track on his first album, the title track of Christo Redentor, features a wordless female soprano vocal that sounds eerily like a Theremin. And the track’s lush string arrangement (complete with harps) is pretty well outside the rock idiom. From there Mandel left-turns into “Before Six,” a tune that anticipates early Blood, Sweat and Tears, and sounding not unlike The Paul Butterfield Blues Band crossed with, say, Cold Blood.

For those who haven’t heard Mandel’s solo work, the nearest artist to whom he might be compared is Shuggie Otis, another musician of singularly wide musical vision. Mandel’s playing is often exciting, featuring thickly sustained notes that are both economical and expressive at once. For his albums, he enlisted some legendary talent, including Graham Bond, Larry Taylor, Eddie Hoh, Pete Drake, and Emil Richards (to name but a few). Vocals show up occasionally, but Mandel seems to understand his strengths (and they are many), sticking to those.

Dave Thompson‘s liner note essay is informative, but the reader may be left wishing the box’s producers had given him more space. But that’s really a minor complaint, as the music on Snake Box largely speaks for itself. Snake Box is a treasure trove of heretofore underappreciated gems. Harvey Mandel is an artist who starts with blues and then pushes far beyond the supposed boundaries of the genre. Those receptive to such an approach are well advised to dive into this box set.

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Hundred Word Reviews for March 2015, Part 4

Thursday, March 5th, 2015

Prog, jazz, blues: there’s something for most musical tastes in today’s roundup of hundred-word reviews.

Mark Wingfield – Proof of Light
If there’s a common raison d’être among the varied acts signed to Leonardo Pavkovic‘s MoonJune label, it’s to explore the sweet spot at which jazz and rock convene. Wingfield’s disc features a trio format – electric guitar, upright bass and drums – but what you’ll hear suggests the presence of other instruments. Imagine a low-key Joe Satriani with less flash and more of a jazz sensibility — albeit with plenty of skronky electric guitar texture – and you’ll be on the path to what this all-instrumental sounds like. The arrangements are subtle, but listen closely and there’s a lot going on.

Winter in Eden – Court of Conscience
Just when I finish a piece in which I assert that there are pretty much no women in prog, along comes this disc, by a UK symphonic progressive act. Soaring Mellotron-sounding keyboards (on the “choir” setting) are met by thundering bass lines, and the requisite tricky time signature work from the drummer. Lots of sonic light and shade means that graceful piano lines are met by crushing, edge-of-metal arrangements. The one-sheet tells us that the band is popular at “various Femme Metal Festivals.” That such a thing exists is news to me. A worthy purchase for fans of the genre.

Mississippi Heat – Warning Shot
I’m always a little guarded when I stumble across an album that sports of a picture of a really large band. It makes me think of those terrible horror-metal bands like Slipknot: does it take nine people to make that sound? To be fair, while the Warning Shot credits list thirteen players, the photo only shows seven. What we have here is traditional, Chicago-styled electric blues with harmonica and vocals out front. Nothing new, really, but then “new” isn’t what most people want from a blues outfit. It swings, and for fans of the harp-through-the-Green-Bullet vibe, it’s just the ticket.

Tony Joe White – The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings
The early 70s music scene seems to have been filled with white singers who could traffic in a credible southern soul style. Louisiana-born Tony Joe White was one of the best, often outshining guys like Elvis Presley (no slouch himself). With a style that sometimes sounds very much like Creedence Clearwater Revival fronted by Mark Lindsay, White turned out three fine albums for Warner Brothers. His guitar playing is pretty impressive, too, in an understated rhythm-guitarist kinda way. Nearly every track here is a White original. No “Polk Salad Annie” (that was earlier in his career), but many other gems.

The Soft Machine – Tanglewood Tails
Canterbury legends The Soft Machine are one of the genre’s best-loved groups. With their jazz meets rock aesthetic, they were an early bridge between the then-disparate styles. Their first several albums are legendary, and deserve to be part of every serious music lover’s core collection. The 2CD set Tanglewood Tails, however, is really a for-the-faithful set of rarities, outtakes and other lo-fi oddities from the group’s earliest days. Studio tracks (such as the delightful “Clarence in Wonderland”) are cracked pop that will appeal to fans of Syd Barrett, as long as one can overlook the consistently distracting dodgy sound quality.

This series of hundred-word reviews wraps up tomorrow.

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Album Review: Lead Belly — Lost Radio Broadcasts: WNYC, 1948

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

In 1948, on a Sunday evening in August, a new radio series premiered. Featuring beloved and renowned folk singer Huddie Ledbetter (aka Lead Belly), The Story of Folklore presented the then-fiftyish Lead Belly doing what he did best: singing songs accompanied only by his acoustic guitar, and introducing the songs with brief spoken interludes. As was the standard practice, the shows would be recorded, pressed onto 16” “aircheck” discs and then broadcast shortly thereafter. The source for this vinyl release is a set of 78rpm 12” discs cut from a playback of those aircheck discs. The resulting quality is quite clear for a recording of this vintage, and the modern-day producers (noted jazz author Cary Ginell and Michael Kieffer) are to be commended for their largely hands-off approach that seeks only to present the performance its best form.

Modern listeners who know “House of the Rising Sun” from its popular interpretation by The Animals may be surprised to hear Lead Belly’s upbeat, almost happy reading of the tune. On “Leavin’ Blues,” the guitarist shows his skill with the twelve-string; he often sounds as if he’s playing more than one instrument (he’s not; nothing like overdubbing existed in the 40s).

Side One presents the August 1 program, and August 15 episode is documented on Side Two. The song list is similar for both episodes: both include brief run-throughs of “Irene” as the opener and closer, plus distinctly different versions of “House of the Rising Sun” and the astounding guitar workout “Hollywood and Vine” (almost prototypical rock’n'roll, Lead Belly characterizes it as “a little boogie”). The man billed as “American’s greatest living folksinger” performs “Backwater Blues” and “Leavin’ Blues” on the first session, with a focus on love songs of a sort (“If It Wasn’t for Dicky” and “Careless Love”) on the second-documented show. The bits of banter between Ledbetter and the (unidentified) announcer are a bit stiff, but they may have served to guide listeners into the somewhat unfamiliar musical world of Lead Belly.

The disc captures the first and third episodes of The Story of Folklore, and the announcer makes mention of the program format for the fourth episode (spirituals), but only these two episodes have surfaced. Presumably the series didn’t continue for much more than four installments total.

The vinyl release of Lost Radio Broadcasts: WNYC, 1948 is pressed on beautiful translucent blue vinyl, housed in a sturdy full-color ten-inch sleeve, and includes a well-put-together liner note booklet that provides background on the recording, the songs, the performer, and the modern transfer of the recording. Happily, the entire project was done with the blessing and cooperation of the Lead Belly Estate.

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Album Review: Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper, Steve Stills – Super Session

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

In 1968, the concept of a “supergroup” was still fresh; Lillian Roxon even wrote about it – and its possibilities – in her Rock Encyclopedia. Al Kooper devised what became Super Session as a collaboration between him and guitarist Mike Bloomfield, late of Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Electric Flag. When the notoriously unreliable Bloomfield flaked halfway through the project, Kooper brought in Steve Stills to finish the album. Tasty (and generally tasteful) playing is all over the nine-track record. This release includes the long-delayed 5.1 mix version; Kooper’s liner notes tell the story. A sixties artifact everyone should hear.

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Album Review: Mark “Muleman” Massey — One Step Ahead of the Blues

Monday, December 15th, 2014


Mark “Muleman” Massey – One Step Ahead of the Blues
You might argue that blues guitarists are a dime a dozen, and as much as I love ‘em (the good ones, anyway), I’d have a hard time arguing against the assertion. Massey is a deft practitioner of the style, and while on this album he doesn’t do anything especially innovative, that’s arguably not the job of a bluesman. His vocals favor B.B. King, his playing is lean’n'mean, and songwriting and production by Memphis legend Don Nix (at Ardent Studios, no less) guarantees quality. Soulful horn charts and gurgling B3 are expertly worked into the mix. You could easily do worse.

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Album Review: Various Artists — Right Now

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

I’ve observed before that Fantastic Voyage makes full advantage of the unique copyright/licensing laws as they exist in the UK; in the United States, putting together a package such as Right Now would be prohibitively expensive, and also certainly a money-losing proposition.

As it is, once again we have Fantastic Voyage to than for compiling a peerless set of music, classic recordings that have long gone unheard by all but the most fanatical crate diggers. The mighty Atlantic label – along with its Atco subsidiary label – was home to some of the best rhythm and blues, soul, rock and roll, and blues artists. And while the most well-known cuts are easily found in myriad places, there are countless “deep cuts” that are rarely heard. Many are excellent songs, and quite a few are of great historical import. And on this new 3CD set, 86 of them are collected in best-available sound quality.

Most of the Atlantic r&b greats are represented here: Solomon Burke, Ben E. King, Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker, and The Isley Brothers are just some of the artists found on this set. But it’s the lesser-known cuts that surprise and delight the most. So while Joe Turner‘s seminal rock’n'roller “Boogie Woogie Country Girl” is here in all its influential glory, so is the amazing “Right Now” by – of all people – Mel Tormé. Electric piano and combo organ are out front in a Cuban-flavored tune that – like so many of the tunes here – sounds like the missing link between rock’n'roll and pretty much any other earlier style you’d care to name.

Jimmy Ricks & The Raves‘ “Daddy Rollin’ Stone” features an out-front baritone vocal and a swaggering, vaguely sinister air. Also here is Richie Barrett‘s “Some Other Guy,” a relatively obscure tune that influenced a Hamburg, Germany bar band called the Beatles (a decade later, John Lennon nicked the song’s intro for his own “Instant Karma”).

The lyrical themes here are pretty much the usual stuff: love, betrayal, sex. The Coasters‘ “I’m a Hog For You” is a random and delightful example. Making things more interesting than they might otherwise be, Right Now compiles well-known artists doing lesser-known versions of of well-known tunes: so we have The Top Notes (instead of The Isley Brothers) doing “Twist and Shout,” and Stick McGhee & His Buddies‘ 1950 recording of “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show” (instead of any of the successful cover versions). Joe Turner makes Lead Belly‘s tune absolutely swing with “Midnight Special Train.”

Lois Wilson‘s detailed liner notes provide the context so often missing in lesser compilations: every tune is noted with its Atlantic or Atco matrix number, release date and composer. Wilson also presents brief, concise background (when available) on the artists and songs included.

Right Now focuses primarily on the 1949-1962 period, in part because of (once again) the UK’s approach to copyright of older material; in practical terms, this might mean that a decade from now – if we’re very lucky – Fantastic Voyage might put together some amazing compilations of Atlantic material from the Muscle Shoals/Stax era.

Fantastic Voyage has released a raft of worthy historical compilations, but Right Now may well be the very best from among them.

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November Hundred-word Reviews, Part 3

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

Once again, it’s time for a run of hundred-word reviews. My inbox has been overflowing of late, and even after removing the material that I deem not worth my time (nor yours), I’m left with far too many discs to cover in my customary manner (500-800 word reviews). So herewith are twenty-five –count ‘em, twenty-five – brief, to-the-point reviews. The third set of five reviews covers various-artist compilations in various genres: rockabilly, blues and soul.


Delmark: 60 Years of Blues
This venerable record label – the nation’s oldest dealing in blues and jazz, in fact – has been responsible for some of the most important blues releases of the 1960s and beyond. This collection draws from old and new material: some of it has been released before to great acclaim; some of the cuts (Big Joe Williams‘ private tape of “44 Blues,” for example) are previously unreleased. As an introduction to the deep Delmark catalog, it’s an excellent sampler. I haven’t heard its companion volume (60 Years of Jazz) but there’s every reason to expect the same level of quality.


Eccentric Soul: The Way Out Label
The folks at Numero Group pride themselves on their eclectic taste, on their ability to sniff out and dig up hopelessly obscure music that deserves a hearing. Their Eccentric Soul series continues with this collection of tunes from the tiny Way Out Recording Company, based in Cleveland, Ohio. Aficionados of deep-cut Northern Soul will find a lot to like in the digital groove of this 2CD set. For an obscure label featuring unknown artists, there’s a bracingly high level of production and arrangement polish to be found on these tracks. Countless shoulda-been-hit numbers lurk among the forty cuts found here.


Eccentric Soul: Capitol City Soul
The story of how Numero ended up with tapes from Columbus, Ohio’s Capsoul label is as interesting (and unlikely) as any of their crate-digging, historical endeavors. But thank goodness it happened. This single disc set of obscurities collects twenty numbers – again, songs you haven’t heard, by groups you’re unlikely to recognize – from the period 1969-1973. It’s sobering to think that were it not for Numero, music such as this might have been lost forever. It deserves better, and the loving care with which Numero compiles it (including peerless liner notes) is a gift to all of us listeners.


Soul City New Orleans: Big Easy Gems from the Dawn of Soul Music
What with music licensing rules being different than in the US – and thus more conducive to the creation of retrospective compilations – British label Fantastic Voyage has the ability to pull together long-forgotten sides from America’s musical past. One of the latest in this ongoing project is this. This 2CD set presents sixty tunes featuring some of the leading lights of New Orleans music, including Huey Smith and the Clowns, Smith’s on-again/off-again associate Bobby Marchan, Irma Thomas, Aaron Neville, Ernie K-Doe and Eddie Bo. Clive Richardson‘s excellent liner notes (and loads of color photos) make it even better. Essential.


Hoosier Daddy: Mar-Vel’ and the Birth of Indiana Rockabilly
Let’s forgive Fantastic Voyage for employing a horrible pun in the title of this set; instead let’s appreciate their efforts in shining a light on a narrow (yet important) slice of American music. The tiny Mar-Vel’ (that’s how it’s spelled) label specialized in what would come to be known as rockabilly. Across three CDs and more than one hundred tracks, this set chronicles the music out of the Indiana label, circa 1953-1962. Fantastic Voyage must have somehow gotten hold of the masters; these crystal clear recordings surely don’t sound like “needle drops.” A treasure trove for pedal steel enthusiasts indeed.

10 more capsule reviews to come.

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Album Review: R.L. Burnside — Too Bad Jim

Thursday, October 30th, 2014

Here’s something that can be described as the sweet spot in a Venn diagram charting a curiosity, a history lesson, and an authentic modern-day reading of country blues. R.L. Burnside‘s Too Bad Jim – newly reissued on vinyl; more about that presently – sounds for all the world like a classic country blues session, the kind of thing Alan Lomax might have captured for the Smithsonian decades ago. Burnside’s delivery – vocal and guitar – is deeply redolent of Mississippi delta bluesmen of old (most notably Fred McDowell), but the production values are positively 21st century.

Which isn’t to say that Too Bad Jim has been gimmicked-up, akin to some sort of White Stripes dilettantism. No, Burnside is indeed the real deal. His blues tunes are true to the spirit of those old field recordings in that his blues is not confined to modern/commercial notions of how long each verse should be. In that he shares a sensibility with artists such as John Lee Hooker: Burnside uses the blues form more as a jumping off point than as a framework. He’s a bluesman, to be sure, but he bends the form to suit his needs. His electrified approach is supported on Too Bad Jim by the sparest of backing: this 1993 recording finds him joined only by bass and drums. Not only is their contribution simple and basic – keeping the spotlight where it belongs – but it’s relatively low in the mix.

And by “mix” I don’t wish to imply that Too Bad Jim has the sound of a multi-track studio recording. The sound is crystal clear and uncluttered, but it very much has the feel of one mic hanging from the ceiling (alongside perhaps a lone, naked incandescent lightbulb). There’s a late-night feel to the ten tracks on Too Bad Jim; that vibe pervades Burnside’s mix of originals, traditional numbers, and a cover of Hooker’s “When My First Life Left Me.” His original numbers – take “Short Haired Woman” for as good an example as any – could have been written ninety years ago, but in Burnside’s capable hands, the songs are timeless. His singing and playing is in turns heartfelt, impassioned, assured, and it’s always authentic.

Too Bad Jim was originally issued on the venerable Fat Possum label. A new subscription service called Vinyl Me Please featured Burnside’s second and highly regarded album as its October 2014 selection. Thick, sturdy heavyweight vinyl is packaged in a higher-gauge cardboard sleeve, along with a download card giving purchasers access to 320kbps (read: high quality) MP3 files. A nice foldout poster will evoke warm memories among those who came of age in vinyl’s 1970s heyday. As part of Vinyl Me Please’s good-natured approach, the package for Too Bad Jim also includes a recipe card for a relevant cocktail, in this case a variation on the Bloody Mary, one that was reputedly a favorite of Burnside’s.

With its monthly offerings, the Vinyl Me Please catalog explores a wide array of genres; the only unifying characteristic seems to be high quality.

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DVD Review: BB King — The Life of Riley

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

I know people who argue that – as a creative work – the music documentary is dead. They point out that the medium has become a rote retreading of tired techniques; that every possible clever, creative or even interesting method of telling a story onscreen has been beaten to death, leaving only the shell of a concept in its wake.

I understand what they mean. It’s nigh upon impossible to find a music documentary that doesn’t have these four things:

  1. Character actors “reenact” the musician’s early years while stock audio (that evokes the style of the subject matter without having to actually, y’know, pay royalties for using the actual music) plays in the background
  2. Post-production digital gimmicks like “fake scratched 16mm film” or “fake sepia tinting” or “fake [insert any of the myriad effects]”
  3. Bono, and possibly Dave Grohl
  4. Narration by Morgan Freeman.

Okay, I overstate things a bit here, both to make a point and possibly elicit a small chuckle. But the fact remains that – like the book says – when it comes to music documentaries, it often seems as if there’s nothing new under the sun.

Jon Brewer‘s new documentary B.B. King: The Life of Riley falls into many of these traps: it has the actors, the post-production, U2‘s ubiquitous lead singer, and Freeman (the last as both off-screen narrator and onscreen “talking head”). But despite its often rote approach, The Life of Riley transcends cliché. This is no doubt thanks to its subject matter. B.B. King is very much the real deal, and so even when tired devices are used to chronicle his life, the substance wins out over the style.

Throughout the film, Brewer’s approach seems to be chronological, but a close watch shows that the narrative often jumps forward and backward in the timeline, in service of the mini-narrative being explored. As much is left out of the story as is put in, and the viewer likely comes away feeling that they haven’t been told the whole story. (For example, we’re left wondering if he’s still married to Sue Carol Hall; he’s not). And his monumental, historic 1974 concert in Africa deserves more than the cursory mention it gets in the film. But in the absence of any other career-spanning look at King, The Life of Riley is what we have. And in the wake of King’s very recent suspension of his tour (for health reasons; he’s currently 89 years of age), now is the perfect time for such a film to appear.

In Brewer’s defense, The Life of Riley is perhaps the only music documentary in which the inescapable likeness and voice of Bono does truly deserve its place in the film. U2 toured and performed with King, and their “When Love Comes to Town” (featuring King on vocals and guitar) is one of the better pieces of music they’ve produced. (It’s less clear, however, why Bruce Willis gets screen time, but we’ll leave that one for another day.) And despite the fact that having Freeman narrate your film has become tired even as a joke device, the man’s clear yet laconic cadence is an excellent vehicle for narration.

As portrayed in The Life of Riley, King is painted as something of a good-natured rascal, one who always has a smile but whom you’d best not cross; it seems once he achieved success, he invariably (and inviolably) got his way. Fair enough: if any musician can be said to have paid his dues, King – who came from indisputably hardscrabble beginnings – is that man.

Music fans will come away from The Life of Riley wishing there was more in the way of performance clips in the film. But for that, there’s always King’s deep catalog of music. His most recent album is the Grammy-winning One Kind Favor; I reviewed it on release way back in 2008.

In the end, unlike its subject matter, The Life of Riley doesn’t yield anything that’s groundbreaking or especially inspiring. It’s perhaps only a small notch above an A&E Biography TV special (do they even make those any more?), but it remains worthwhile viewing.

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