Judge Bill Gibron drowns his sorrows with this blues performance disc.
A legendary musician in a combustible performance
There is, perhaps, no more evocative form of music than the Blues. These improvisational explorations into the sadder side of life, with all its pitfalls and problems, transcends the standard 16-bar chord structure of a typical melancholy melody to speak to people at a very basic, very personal level. The Blues are about anguish and despair, persecution and providence. From its cotton field origins in spirituals and Gospel to the electrifying influence of rock and roll, the urban dirge has seen itself formed by some of the most spellbinding and significant names in music. From the soul-selling sweetness of Robert Johnson to the brash bravado betrayal tales of Muddy Waters, these deep soul soundscapes have shaped all manner of styles, from heavy metal to R&B, with multiple points in between. And for such a simple sonic color scheme, stripped of all pretense or peculiarities, there is still an enormous amount of depth and complexity. Instead of championing love lost or life askew, the Blues boils such sad experiences down to their essence and reconfigures them so that the sensation is true and the pain is real.
Albert King was one of the greatest musicians and fiercest guitarists of the genre. A true legend in a field full of them, he played his right-handed axe (stringed for such a player) from the left-handed position, bending the high strings down instead of up. In many ways, this methodology describes King's take on the Blues—and life in general: inventive, suggestive, and strangely reminiscent of a descent into interpersonal hell.
Albert King: Live in Sweden is a wonderful document of a Blues legend in fine, later day form. Though relatively short (only 58 minutes, including interview footage), this showcase to old-fashioned musicianship features the other "King" (B.B., being the premier weeping guitar god) in a musical microcosm of his entire career. Able to belt out the slow burn ballads with heart wrenching aplomb and always applying his suave onstage persona to please his audience like a good time snake charmer, King leads his band of expert players through a succinct set of stellar songs, including:
• Born Under a Bad Sign
Each performance is earmarked by wonderfully poignant and affecting solo work from both King and the members of his band. The playing is tight and tempered by mood, atmosphere, and lyrical suggestion. There do seem to be moments where King is struggling, both with technical and physical issues. Still ever the showman, this performance platform offers indications of his prodigy (like the incredible "Sky" and blazing "Cadillac") as well as invention (the souped-up "Summertime" works well as an instrumental). Only 57 at the time of this taping (June 9, 1980), King would live another 12 years and tour the world several times over before dying in 1992. But he often visually suggests a sense of ill health, finding it difficult to focus on the feeling in the music and mired in internal issues.
That is especially true of the interview material included here. Featured as breaks in between the song cycle, King is eloquent and quite moving at times as he looks back on the luck in his career, the elements of musicianship that are important to him, and how concrete his link to the Blues really is. There is a defeatist ideal to his words, a world-weariness that seems to be a direct result of being involved in music for so long. This does not mean that King comes off as depressed or defeated—far from it—but one does get the impression of a journeyman who wonders where the superstar limelight went, why his talent (and the talents of so many in the Blues arena) has gone unheralded for so long. It's important to remember that 1980 was the pinnacle of Joliet Jake and Elwood Blues's (AKA John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd) influence in popular culture, after a hit album (1978's A Briefcase Full of Blues) and a major motion picture (1980's Blues Brothers). Many in the industry found this SNL skit turned fad phenomenon a lame excuse for the real thing, and the almost anarchic response that a couple of white guys got by mining King's beloved genre had to be hell on him and any other blues legend. This façade of faded glory paints the Q&A portrait of Albert King and makes this DVD more than just an outstanding concert performance; it is also an insightful peak into one man's mission to sing and play the most expressive elegies ever devised for the downtrodden and lonely.
Image's DVD presentation of this title is professional, if a little lacking. Without any bonus features to speak of, what we have here is a souvenir of a Swedish television broadcast. The European origin of this material is also evident in the transfer. The 1.33:1 full screen image is filled with PAL/NTSC conversion feedback and telltale tracking lines. It resembles the video scoring that occurred when VCRs first tried to address the electronic elements of basic cable. But thankfully, the aural presentation is absolutely superb. Accessible in a clean and crisp Dolby Digital Stereo format, you definitely get the concert experience with this disc. From the occasional onstage stumbles to the appreciative roar of the crowd, King and his band sound wonderful and the soundtrack is filled with atmosphere and ambience. On the bonus side, while a discography was, perhaps, out of the question (most legendary artists have impossible to track album releases that mimic the multiple facets of their ever-changing myth), an essay explaining his importance to the genre and to musicians everywhere would have been nice. As it is, this bare bones bonanza is a visual display of a phenomenal live act in his element: in front of an audience, tearing through another urban tearjerker.
Albert King: Live in Sweden reminds one that musicianship and skill far outweigh image and technology when it comes to truly special and emotional musical experiences. Though this "King" is now dead, this DVD will help him live on forever.
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