Sunday, 28 April 2019

New Orleans Heat - Albert King

Provenance: Yeah, I picked this up for a fiver somewhere. I'm a big blues fan, and I've a solid regard for New Orleans musicianship, so this one seemed like a slam dunk.

Review: When people talk about superstar producers, names like Mutt Lange, Joe Meek, George Martin, Phil Spector, Quincy Jones and Rick Rubin readily come to mind. Now, it's possible that he's over-represented in my music collection because of the direction in which my tastes skew, but I'd include Allen Toussaint in that crowd. In my mind, he is the central figure of 20th century New Orleans R&B, acting as a triple threat of songwriter, performer and producer. It's no surprise, then, that when Albert King pitched up in the Crescent City to try to inject a new lease of life into some of his classics that we find Toussaint producing, arranging and playing on New Orleans Heat.

As one of the 'Three Kings' of the blues, Albert can sometimes find himself lost in the shuffle. Way out in front is the late B.B. King, a man who came to signify the blues for many, even if his sleek, city-sophisticate take on the genre never quite jived with purists. Then you had the volcanic talent of Freddie King; a big man with a gritty soul voice and a flamboyance on stage that was only matched by his scintillating guitar playing. Then you had the six-and-a-half-feet of Albert King, pinging needly guitar bends around an upside-down Flying V, cooing his songs in a warm, keening moan. Maybe he didn't quite have B.B.'s versatility, nor Freddie's chops, but to me Albert thoroughly deserves his place in the pantheon if only for 1967's Born Under a Bad Sign, recorded with Booker T and the MGs and pound-for-pound one of the greatest rhythm and blues albums, period.

However - despite the marriage of two colossal talents in Albert King and Allen Toussaint, New Orleans Heat doesn't really click. Why so? Well, I think Allen Toussaint's work with soul, funk and even jazz musicians eclipses his production of blues artists; his tendency is to deliver something smooth and sly, whilst King thrives with a more knockabout backing. Perhaps it's King's mellow voice that gulls one into thinking that he can fit in with the Toussaint template, but opener 'Get Out Of My Life Woman' can't hold a candle to Lee Dorsey's version (which was, of course, both written and produced by Allen Toussaint). The next track fares no better - the immortal 'Born Under a Bad Sign' brought to heel by Toussaint's tendency to smooth out rough edges.

Sounds like I've got some real beef with Allen Toussaint, huh? Think again. His work with Lee Dorsey in the mid-1960s is sublime (he wrote 'Working in the Coal Mine', fercrissakes) and in Life, Love and Faith and especially Southern Nights he wrote and performed two of the most remarkable funky New Orleans soul albums of all time. At his best, Allen Toussaint could be untouchable; but New Orleans Heat isn't anywhere near his best. It's simply a bad pairing, with some unfortunate results such as the insipid 'The Very Thought of You' and the embarrassing funk of 'We All Wanna Boogie' (though artists who started off in the blues certainly could produce very credible funk records - King's near-contemporary Johnny 'Guitar' Watson springs to mind).

On a few occasions the King-Toussaint collaboration hits the mark. Despite sounding a little neutered, 'Born Under a Bad Sign' is too good a song to ruin; 'I Got the Blues' has a sinuous minor-key groove running through it and leaves enough room for King's guitar to stretch out; and Leo goddamn Nocentelli's chanky rhythm playing injects some spice into 'I Get Evil', in spite of its too-glossy horn arrangements.

One final thought - despite the lead guitar work all being very idiosyncratic to Albert King's wavy, elastic attack, his guitar tone is dogshit. Pure dogshit. In an ill-advised attempt to sound contemporary, I guess, it's got some kind of horrible phasing effect all over it. The one track where they seemed to have forgotten to plug the fucking pedal in, 'Angel of Mercy', coincidentally happens to be the most straightforward blues number of the bunch, and - lo and behold - the guitar playing absolutely cooks. Oh well, it was 1978; in any case, it's not the disaster that Electric Mud was (yeah, some disaster - it sold a quarter of a million copies, but it's a mess).

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