There was a period of time in the ’80s when B.B. King- deferring to a bevy of schlockmeisters with bad ideas about “hip” production values-threatened to foil his great legacy of the ’50s and ’60s. He fully redeemed himself in the ’90s with 1993’s Blues Summit and last year’s Deuces Wild, both all-star projects. But with Blues on the Bayou (MCA 11879; 64:10), his first ever self-produced album, the 73-year-old undisputed king of the blues has summed up his fabulous 50-year career in magnificent fashion.
Recorded in just four days at Dockside Studios in Maurice, Louisiana (a downhome facility that producer John Snyder has favored for some of his more successful blues projects), this back-to-basics project captures the touring B.B. King band in excellent form. There is nary a nod to blatant commercialism here. No cheesy synthesizers or background singers, no overbearing backbeats or slapping bass guitar to make things sound “contempo.”
Calep Emphrey’s drums are pushed back in the mix and Michael Doster’s bass has an almost subliminal presence, which gives this production a classic, timeless feel. Lucille sings as sweetly as ever and B.B. unleashes his grand, passionate vocals on a program of 15 tunes that he wrote or co-wrote.
This is B.B.’s personal project all the way, which is evident from the outset. No producer with an eye toward commercial potential would ever allow an album to open AND close with instrumentals. And yet, there they are-a minor key “Blues Boy’s Tune” to open the proceedings and the aptly titled “If That Ain’t It I Quit” to wrap things up. In between, B.B. lays into shuffles, jump blues, and slow blues with sage-like phrasing. He revives a longtime concert favorite in “I Got Some Outside Help I Don’t Really Need” and resurrects the confessional “I’ll Survive,” a tune he wrote in the ’50s but confesses in the liner notes: “I sang it then but I’m not sure I understood it. Now I know the meaning of survival.”
On the old-school shuffle “Mean Ol’ World” he delivers the following line with unparalleled passion: “Someday baby when the blood runs cold in my veins/you won’t be able to mistreat me no more then baby/’cause my heart won’t feel no pain.” Then on “Broken Promise” he adapts an angry attitude as he snarls: “You don’t love me, you don’t even wish me well/Honor’s just a joke to you, baby. You don’t love me, I can tell/Married life with you baby…I’d rather be living in a cell.”
James Toney plays a crucial role throughout on keyboards, affecting a tinkling, Pinetop-ish quality on piano for the tough shuffle “Mean Ol’ World” and two autobiographical slow blues, “I”ll Survive” and “Blues Man.” He engages in some playful call-and-response with B.B. on the other instrumental, “Blues We Like,” and rocks out like Jimmie Johnson on the jaunty jump blues “Shake It Up and Go.” On organ he goes to church on “Bad Case of Love,” gets greasy on “Broken Promise” and buoys up the lush ballad-with-strings showcase, “If I Lost You,” with velvety
B-3. Second guitarist name also offers hip comping throughout (love those sixths on “Bad Case of Love”).
This is pure, unadulterated blues, just the way B.B. has been doing it on the road forever: his love letter to all the hardcore blues aficionados out there.