There’s an old, old blues couplet — I first heard Big Bill Broonzy sing it but it certainly goes further back than even his recollection did, probably to some recently emancipated tenant farmer in the Yazoo Delta looking out from his front porch at the wavy red reflections on the river — “The sun rises in the east, mama, and it sets down in the west/It’s so hard, hard to tell which woman will love you the best.” Albert King’s “Blues at Sunrise” on this LP opens this way. “Sun rises in the east, lover, it set deeply in the west/I’ve been lookin’ for my lover and I haven’t found her yet.”
In other words, this is not the place to look for something shockingly new, “inventive,” surreal, etc. Here is just one man’s reworking of a classic format to make an intensely personal statement, invoking all the cliches without becoming for one second a cliche itself. Just the unadulterated pure and simple blues, “‘the old country blues” as he calls them, home base for the thousand variations of a hundred musicians. If this sort of direct, unvarnished blues didn’t already exist, it would have been necessary for Butterfield, Clapton & Co. to have invented it.
Of course, Albert King is not that old-time sharecropper but an extremely flexible and effective contemporary musician, as his playing on his first Stax album, Born Under a Bad Sign, and on the other cuts here clearly shows. But “Blues at Sunrise” is played absolutely straight; even in his guitar solo, a stone set-up for showboating, he uses no tricks or frills, not letting the electrified instrument play itself, and remains alone with the blues.
The 14-year-old white junior high school student on a San Francisco streetcar told me to listen to that one, so it appears that Albert is right when he says that “everybody has the blues, everybody understands the blues,” as he does in his opening monologue on “Blues Power.” A sly humorist in the best tradition of the Negro stage, Albert again proves (as his offhand comments on the single “Cold Feet” did) that the spoken word is King. He doesn’t sing at all on this track, but plays in an assortment of musical settings, at times almost unaccompanied, his trademark drawn out single notes backed by the lightest cymbal sizzle, at others with organ, tenor and electric bass riffing behind him to provide a very funky R&B feel.
Stax for some reason didn’t see fit to include some of the other material they recorded during the date at the Fill-more when this album was taken, including a superb “Stormy Monday” and a very gutty version of “Laundromat Blues.” The tunes that round out the LP are not to be sneezed at, though. “Please Love Me” is a medium tempo Kansas City style blues a la Joe Turner and Jimmy Witherspoon, with the guitar work giving King’s peculiar texture to the mixture.
The instrumental “Watermelon Man” illustrates Albert’s penchant for adapting extra-blues material to fit his needs — in this case jazz pianist Herbie Hancock’s tune as popularized by the Afro-Cuban Mongo Santamaria Orchestra, but he has used Beatle tunes as well. And the closer, “Look Out,” is a real rocker, complete with heavy beat and lots of drum work, that contains enough quotes and fills from various R&B records to supply an entire rib joint juke box by itself … and is still solid Albert King, which is pretty solid.