B.B. King: Guess Who

B.B. King is a deservedly well-respected man. Anybody playing blues (or rock) guitar who doesn't name him as an influence is either dumb or a liar. He's been a tireless performer, spending god-knows-how-many years doing one night stands and crusading for wider acceptance of the music he loves. Besides being a widely copied instrumentalist, his vocals have also been influential — and rarer yet, he's a true gentleman performer; he gives all he's got to his audience.

I haven't heard much of B.B. since "The Thrill Is Gone" — and so this new album came as a shock. It's bland, over-orchestrated and in spots just plain boring. Many of the cuts sound very little like the King of old. (I put it on for a friend who said, "Guess who? I dunno — Jim Nabors?")

It ain't that bad, but it ain't that good either. The album opener is the Spoonful's "Summer in the City" complete with a chorus. It reminds me of that Albert King album a few years back where he did Presley tunes; it sounds like a nice idea, but what's the point? In general the tunes are mostly listless, and the horn section (which includes most of Butterfield's old reed men) sure doesn't help at all.

King has always liked sentimental ballads but two of the ones included here verge on the mawkish. "It Takes a Young Girl (to make an old man smile)" is embarrassing, and the King-written "Neighborhood Affair" sounds as if it was first done by some C&W tear-jerker stylist. Strangely enough, some of the best guitar comes on a Hoyt Axton song, the heavily significant "Better Lovin' Man." But to my ears the best track is another written by King, "Shouldn't Have Left Me" — it's B.B. of old, with all the stinging guitar flurries and vocal intensity. Also strangely, the most seemingly promising title, Eddie Boyd's classic "Five Long Years" is one of the weakest tracks — it just don't move you and dies an undeserved death.

I don't understand what's happened. Maybe this Las Vegas-ized blues style is something B.B. always wanted to do ... but what for? He is capable of so much more than this, and it's a shame to see that talent wasted on so-so material or stuck inside these nice little polyester arrangements.