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King King (1992)


/ Goin' to the Church / She's Dangerous / I Wish You Would / Cross Your Heart / Tail Dragger / Devil Woman / No Fightin' / Mr. Highway Man / I'm Ready / Quarter to Twelve / Cut That Out

King KingWith the possible exception of the Butterfield Blues Band's East-West, this is the best white boy blues album I have ever heard. And Butterfield's band was racially mixed, so that's cheating. King King (named after the club where it was recorded) is the motherfucker of all white blues albums. Oh, there are louder blues albums - Zen Guerilla and Five Horse Johnson come to mind - but they were made/recorded by bands from other scenes that happened to dabble in the blues on the side. The Red Devils were a blues band in the purest sense of the word. They were real, they were destined to be heard in juke joints and there was nothing fancy about 'em. No silly retro-shtick, no boring imitations. There are probably hundreds of bands that have the technical chops to play a blues tune or two, but they don't have "it," you know (and if you're not into this kind of music, you probably don't understand a fucking word about what I'm writing here), aren't capable of delivering the goods on stage, in front of a bunch of blues fans. The Red Devils were as good as it gets: on drums you had a human metronome called Bill Bateman, who used to be in legendary roots-rock outfit The Blasters (and nowadays in comedy act The Cramps), brother Dave Lee and Johnny Ray Bartel on guitar and bass, child prodigy Paul "The Kid" Size on guitar, and then there was the man that made quite an impact during his short lifetime (he OD'd in 1998 at the age of 38): Lester Butler, a masterful harmonica player who combined the soul of Little Walter with the imposing technicality of Charlie Musselwhite and Paul Butterfield, while - or so it seemed - adding an extra dimension of pure grit. I don't know whose idea it was, but recording this live album was divine intervention, as the band delivered an incredible set that night, which was produced and saved for posteriority by label chief Rick Rubin. Of these 12 songs, only three are originals were penned by Butler & Band, but they can easily compete with the other tracks: "Goin' to the Church" is a frenzied slab of redemption-seeking that rocks harder than Limp Bizkit's entire catalogue, the late night blues "Devil Woman" fools you into believing that California lies in swampland, while "No Fightin'" - one of my favorite blues songs ever - displays so much class it's ridiculous. The way that struttin' rhythm, Butler's alcohol-soaked vocals and the guitars interact - it's blues played by the Gods. Most of the other songs the band played will sound familiar to the ears of anyone with more than just a casual interest in the blues, with the difference that you've never heard these songs so damn tough, loud, mean & lean. Sonny Boy Williams' "Cross Your Heart" and Little Walter's "Quarter to Twelve" are so mellow and blue you'll crawl all over the floor, while "I Wish You Would" and "I'm Ready" boast an unstoppable groove, incredibly muscular harmonica playing (can it be muscular? YES IT CAN!) and wailing, howling, chugging guitar parts. And I could go on and on about how this album oozes so much confidence, how the interplay is totally stellar, how they keep the spirit of the blues so young and fresh that you almost feel bad for the countless bands that try to get by on image, but lack the substance. "Automatic" became a hard-hitting signature song for the band, but it's not even the most frenzied of these cuts, as Howlin' Wolf's "Mr. Highway Man" and - especially - Junior Wells' "Cut That Out" take the blues to the streets, as loud and heavy as it gets without succumbing to cheap sludge or clumsy hard-rock dressed up as blues. It's music that grooves, breathes, thrills, encourages and excites. Disliking this album sounds a lot like blasphemy to me. If you're into the blues and like some bad-ass Chicago-styled partyin' once in awhile, this is required listening. If you're looking for a perfect introduction to (modern) blues, this is an ideal pick. The downside of it all is that you'll have a hard time finding something that measures up to it, but hey, life is short (unfortunately - remember Butler) and I always try to get the best as well, so I suggest you do the same. As the name suggests, King King deserves to be treated like royalty. Get it.

Reader comments:

Forrest Jenkins (USA):

Damn, I love this album. I have had it for about 7 years now and it has never left my CD player for longer than about a month. Your review hit the nail on the head. It is impossible to pick a favorite, but No Fightin' has to be vying for it. When the guitar player hits that little high note on the line about the telephone, I just get chills. I regret never having a chance to see these guys, especially Lester. His album with 13 is pretty good, too. A life too soon extinguished.

Kenneth Durham (USA):

A friend of mine told me about this album back in '92, and I searched high and low for it. I finally found one cassette at Tower Records. The last one they had. This was the time, as you know, when CDs were first coming on the scene. I got the tape and was very happy with the acquisition. Some time within the last couple of years, that tape has vanished. Very disappointed, I began a new search for the record, this time though for a CD. Knowing that the recording is out of print, I decided to try Ebay, what the hell, every one else is, right? After a few tries to find it, and a failed attempt to win a copy at auction, I was able to again acquire this fine recording. I won't tell you how much I spent this time for the CD, the tape was about $10 in '92, and the recent CD purchase may have been a bit high for the current CD market, but very much worth the money, and effort I put into it.. Find a copy if you can, and listen to it over and over again, I know you'll love the way I do.

Sean Conolly (USA):

I was fortunate enough to spend many Monday nights at the King King with the Red Devils and I gotta say that this live recording is by far the best live recording I have ever heard. The energy just seemed to carry over. Great review. Made me long for those smokey drunken nights back in Los Angeles when the only other option was Warrant or Poison.

Charlie Moffatt (UK):

Hi, my name is Charlie Moffat (Scotland). A friend gave me this cd a few years back and I can honestly say it is one of the best blues rock album I have ever heard. At the time I was in the middle of starting a band in Glasgow (The Easy Riders) and he new I played the harp. When I put it on I instantly new what direction I wanted my band to go. The sound, the feel, the grit of"King King" is true blues in its rawest and best. Lester Butler was such an inspiration to me, his harp playing on this album and 13 is awesome and I wish he was still around blowing some of his magic. Thanks for the great review on King King you got it exactly right.


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