WELCOME TO B.B. KING LIVE IN COOK COUNTY JAIL: A CHOOSE YOUR OWN REVIEW POST.
It has been a miserable summer, this summer. More sweat than sun, and more rain than either. Even that wouldn't be so bad with a breath of wind from time to time. Rain without wind is boring; just gravity. Nobody cool cares about gravity anymore.
Safe inside, or trapped inside, or both, you sigh in the way only the British and dogs can sigh, and you decide on a CD, hoping to eat up some time before you can leave the house, or go to bed, whichever comes first. Feeling capricious, or possibly just starved for distraction, you grab an album at random and load it into the tray.
What bursts from stereo takes you by surprise for a moment. This isn't music. It's a woman announcing an upcoming act whilst a piano is played lazily in the background.
Your current review score is 0. If you have any interest in American history or musicology, turn to 6. If you just want some goddamn tunes, turn to 3.
Oh, dear. It's not as though you're completely against the idea of some neat noodling, or anything, but six minutes of it in two songs is really too much. It's not even so much that you don't like instrumental stretches, but there's only so long times you can hear a guy pulling off a riff over frankly fairly rudimentary bass and piano backing before you start to wonder when something interesting will happen. For the record, six minutes in two songs is too long a time.
Not that it isn't competently done. But it's something to appreciate, not feel. And if blues music isn't making you feel something, it's hard to not conclude that something is missing. Maybe this is one of those times something really is lost from not being there in person.
It occurs to you that a CD boasting only eight tracks and a 38 minute run-time has an exceptional cheek kicking off with a spoken word track in which the act you already know will appear, having bought his record, is introduced. You don't need to be informed of when the show is about to start. You have the fucking CD. Turn to 4.
The introductions over, the first song begins. "Everyday I Have the Blues" is simply brilliant, a fast-paced run through an old blues staple that manages that uncanny feat that exemplifies what might be the genre's single greatest trick: making misery defiantly uplifting and, more, something to dance to. As the song finishes you feel exhilarated, eagerly anticipating what comes next. Add six tentacles to your review score.
If you have a love of tasty blues riffs spread over a ludicrously wide space of time, turn to 10. Otherwise, turn to 2.
You don't even understand why you own this album. Or are reading a blog without a Confederate Flag at the top. B B King's voice begins to burn into your brain, and you begin to panic that you have become contaminated in some way. The knowledge of how far civil rights has come since that afternoon in 1971 suddenly becomes clear to you. You've already lost! The world has spun on without you!
You begin to hear drums pounding inside your head. The drums of history. The ticking clock that's counting down your kind's final days on this Earth. They will remember what you fought for, but none will understand.
First you get syphilis.
It occurs to you that live albums are, almost always, a product of their times. So are studio albums, of course, but they can often hide it better. They are works of fiction. A live album is a recitation of fiction, to an audience who are quite real.
On this occasion, the audience is a group of convicts, seemingly predominantly black from the faded picture which accompanies the liner notes. Convicts, as you learn from the liner notes, from a jail previously notorious for letting the inmates very much run the place, and who were unsurprisingly far from happy when a new governor, Winston Moore, took over and had the temerity to start running it as though it were actually a prison.
Listening to this introduction, then, in which the MC unflappably thanks Moore for organising the gig and for Chief Justice of the Criminal Court Joseph Power for attending, and hearing the raucous sound of booing from those not particularly fond of those who put people in cells, nor of those who keep them there, there's a brief moment, however far removed, of feeling some jolt of connection to a day 41 years distant.
This album was a historical document all along, but nowhere is that made clearer than in these opening ninety seconds. Some discs you can carry through the rest of our lives. This one stays where it always was, and you can only visit. Add half a tentacle to your review score, and turn to 4.
Alright. It's a weird thing to have heard in the middle of a blues number, but whatever. Turn to 11.
This is very much an album of two halves, you notice, glancing at the liner notes. This first half features nothing actually written by King. He's playing other people's songs, and doing a pretty good job of it (add two to your current review score). Halfway through "Worry, Worry", though, he puts the blues singing away to interact with his audience, as though the exact middle ground between a revivalist preacher and a carnival barker. It's time to dole out some relationship advice, which is arguably a stable door/bolted horse deal for some of the assembled, but never mind. The guy has charisma and delivery, there's no way around it.
Then we get onto the subject of beating your woman. "Don't go upside her head!" King exclaims, and I don't think anyone's going to argue with him there. "Judge sez it's cheaper if you don't beat her!" he continues.
If you think jokes about wife beating are never acceptable, and particularly not when talking to a crowd who you suspect must include some domestic abusers, turn to 9.
If you're not sure about whether white people in 2012 get to judge the humour of a black man in 1971, and aren't worried to much about whether this is the soft bigotry of low expectations, or if you think a jokes just a joke, maybe, or something, turn to 7.
If you straight out just don't like black people, turn to 5.
You can't let this one go. Banter is one thing, but this bothers you too much to dismiss. Subtract one tentacle from your review score, and turn to 11.
You're in luck! Tasty blues riffs spread over a ludicrously wide space of time! Hell, the second song doesn't even really start until the three minute mark! The song after that spends almost as much time to spool up. And throughout these meandering introductions, King handles his guitar like the pro he is, offering skill without flash, and familiarity without repetition. Add one tentacle to your review score, and turn to 8.
The second half of the CD now begins; mainly featuring songs written by King himself. Frankly, it doesn't work quite so well. There's that weird blues habit of repeating the first line of a verse, which is fine, except this is already an exceptionally simplistic record lyrically, and these later tunes aren't enough to make up for them, despite some good bass work and excellent support from the trumpet and saxophones. It's far too easy to not even realise one song has ended and another's begun, which is never a good sign.
That said, it ends pretty well with "Please Accept My Love", but it's still hard not to see this as a pretty front-loaded album. Subtract one tentacle from your review score and turn to 12.
With a soft click, the CD player announces it has completed the task you set it. As you glance out of the window (the same unending rain glints at you through the streetlight), you ponder what you've just heard. Was it really the 499th best album of all time, as Rolling Stone once claimed? A diverting enough LP with some interesting historical context? Or a phenomenal showman who for whatever reason lacked the songs to back him up on this occasion?
That depends on your path through this Choose Your Own Review post. Your current review score is your final adjudication regarding the record's quality.
PS: Also, congratulations on not contracting syphilis.