The Thrill Is Gone

With help from longtime fan Eric Clapton, legendary bluesman B.B. King has scored a Top 10 album. Any idea why?

Look, Santana is one thing. Nothing, er, supernatural, about going platinum when you've got Clive Davis bankrolling you. Buoyed by more celebrity guest spots than a season of The Simpsons, the resulting album was a multiplatinum Grammy magnet that reduced Santana's guitar to a distinctive sound effect, a signifier of Integrity and Quality set adrift among myriad commercial trends. But when a straight B.B. King blues record lands at No. 3 in Billboard, just behind Britney Spears and Eminem, you've got to wonder what's going on in the marketplace.

Judging by the speed with which copies of Riding With the King (Reprise) are currently flying out of retail chains, you might guess that B.B. King CDs were hard to come by, that his oeuvre was limited to ancient recordings pressed on wax cylinders filed in dusty vaults. They're not, of course: King was responsible for some 20 new and reissued discs in the Nineties alone. But a B.B. King/Eric Clapton CD--well, that's a bluesman of a different color...]

Here's a matchup of true guitar heavyweights--another blues "summit" to be hyped like a marquee prizefight, like Muddy Waters and Johnny Winter in the Seventies, or, more recent, Stevie Ray Vaughan squaring off against Albert Collins. By some curious quirk of our own retro-hero fascination, we never tire of paying to watch the "legendary" champions of old slug it out. If you've seen a Larry Holmes or George Foreman fight in the past decade, however, you know what to expect: Mass replaces vigor, standing and clutching substitute for menace, and what once was innovation now resembles a tic. Yet fighters and fans alike engage in a mutual act of willed myopia, paying tribute to some aura of former greatness that they think reaches beyond this momentary spectacle.

Blues fans, too, know about fading glory. Critics deride contemporary practitioners of the genre as self-indulgent or naive searchers for "roots"; latter-day fans, especially white ones, are discounted as boorish cultural tourists. But blues--at least as exemplified by the thick vibrato and tasty lyricism of these guitarists--is also a place for a righteous holler, a heroic yet simple act of wrenching meaning out of what might appear the most constrictive of forms. Starting with a deliberately limited tonal vocabulary and often workaday tunes, these musicians yank musical rabbits out of the most battered of hats.

King and Clapton have earned their legends, consistently delivering sharp, punctuating statements amid relaxed, predictable patterns. These two men were capable of something more than just another field trip to the ol' blueseum here. Perhaps, I hoped, contact and collaboration could cook up something special, maybe even unexpected. And the playing here does sound refreshingly unrehearsed. Clapton's Strat has developed an edgy growl, while King sticks to his characteristically economical, singing notes. In short, the mood is right for an epiphany--which, unfortunately, never comes.

To the duo's credit, this amiable collaboration is not presented as a cutting contest. The two leaders instead casually trade vocals from separate stereo channels, Clapton residing squarely in the left and King in the right. The songs are mostly old blues associated with King or, in a couple of cases, Clapton. But even the "pop" tunes (John Hiatt's title tune is a trifle with a heart of tin) have been relentlessly bloozified so that lead-guitar exchanges are most prominent. Despite the fact that we can almost hear Clapton anxiously thumbing through his dog-eared copy of Riff-o-matic Blues throughout, an undertow of dullness seems to pull most efforts right out to sea.

What's to blame? Clapton's "gruff" blues voice (is that a Blind Willie McTell imitation?) The crisp, radio-friendly production? The plethora of guitarists--as many as five on some tracks? The thin piano sounds and drum programming, diluted by producer Simon Climie's mix to beer-commercial smoothness? Also-ran Jimmie Vaughan muscling his way in on "Help the Poor"? (Jeez, he isn't even the best guitarist in his family.)

Or does blame lie with the performers themselves? "Ten Long Years" and "Three O'Clock Blues" have some heated exchanges, and King adapts well to an acoustic setting on two cuts, showing that the electricity is actually in the fingers. But there's a blues guitarist of equal or greater ability showing off in about every music store in America right now. Granted he (yes, it's usually a "he") derived the bulk of his "talent" from old King and Clapton albums. How much would it pain him to realize that he has caught up to, even surpassed, the recent efforts of his idols?

If our imagined blues amateur recognizes this, he doesn't feel burned. At last count, the number of customer reviews for Riding With the King at Amazon.com had already passed 200. Most of these comments are marked with the sort of energy and excitement sorely lacking on this disc. Gushes one true believer: "All of those people who were not familiarized with the blues have now a great chance to be plugged...eternally plugged with this marvelous rhythm!" These correspondents share a similar desire to recapture memories and legends, even if doing so requires some imagination on their part to grasp what all the fuss is about.

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