Saturday, September 12, 2015

Music Reviews: Freddie King: Going Down at Onkel Po's

Freddie King
Going Down at Onkel Po's
Late great Texas born bluesman Freddie King was one of my favorite musicians. He was a huge man at 6-6. King had a literally larger than life expressive baritone voice. Obviously King was best known for his exciting guitar style. King easily bridged the gap or in some cases was the gap between the post BB-King lead style electric blues and the blues-rock and funk of the late sixties and early seventies. King had a very aggressive guitar sound, shaped in part by his very large fingers and somewhat anachronistic country blues style usage of a thumbpick and index finger pick. Unfortunately King died tragically early at 42 from ulcers and pancreatitis. Like many blues musicians King's best work was done live. However, as with many other artists whose lives were cut short before they could put all of their musical and financial houses in order, King's discography was marred with posthumous live releases that to put it mildly, were utter crap. Some musicians found it very difficult to regularly produce high quality live releases. Just because someone happened to be recording at a concert didn't necessarily mean the concert was intended to be commercially released. 

There were many Freddie King bootleg releases which featured out of tune guitars, inaudible or occasionally overly booming bass, microphones that were too close or too far from the amplifiers, questionable mixing levels or other sonic issues that marred the music. And when you worked as often as Freddie King did, (a typical year could see him doing 300 performances or more) it was almost inevitable that there would be some off nights where the band was flat, poorly recorded or just uninspired. It just happens. As something of a Freddie King completist I own many of these releases, to my chagrin. 

Sometimes it seems as if every last single fly by night recording/publishing company put out a Freddie King concert release under many different names. To make things worse, often times these releases would cover the same concert or concerts, occasionally dropping or adding a song so that the company could claim that their release was unique. Purchasing or even bothering to listen to much of this stuff can leave you feeling akin to Charlie Brown immediately after Lucy has pulled away the football for the ten billionth time. All day sucker.

Fortunately "Going Down at Onkel Po's" is not a middling Freddie King release. This is a concert at Hamburg's Carnegie Hall from a seventies Freddie King German tour. The first thing of note is the overall sound. The bass can actually be heard, although probably writing that the bass can be felt, would be more accurate. The band is tight on this recording. I don't know how long the two men played together but on this night King's drummer was blues/soul great Calep Emphery, who was a fixture with fellow blues giants BB King and Little Milton. Emphery brought back both swing and simplicity to King's music, giving it a pulse and drive that was critical to a listener's enjoyment. The second guitarist steps out on slide from time to time while the rest of the band, including Freddie's brother on bass, provides some entertaining and occasionally surprising rhythmic accompaniment. There aren't any horns here but additional punctuation and chordal background is provided by two keyboardists. 

But make no mistake, this is the Freddie King show all the way. James Brown may have been the hardest working man in show business but there was a reason that some people called King the Texas Cannonball. He gives it everything he's got and then some. King here employs a very thick bassy feedbacky guitar tone that hits you hard right in your gut. As it is a live release with no producers telling King when to stop almost all of the songs run a little long, usually about 4-5 minutes, instead of the normal 2-3 minute run time. Some of them go much longer than that. 56th and Wichita rambles on for 10 minutes while Stormy Monday runs for 16 minutes and change. YMMV with some of these extended sets. King was not a jazz musician and couldn't do what they can do with additional space. Not everything on here is a home run. On the other hand, Ain't Nobody Business goes for about 7 minutes and I could listen to it for 20 minutes. King's voice speaks to me. 

So I guess what I would say is that if you're a Freddie King fan or are just curious about electric blues this is definitely worth your time. This was what modern blues sounded like circa 1975 or so. This was before blues had become preservation hall music. There are a tremendous number of nods to and quotes from the popular rock, soul and funk music of the day. That makes sense because Freddie King had developed a great deal of the vocabulary that then current rock, soul and funk musicians were using. The other thing that I liked is that as with many blues guitarists of his generation, there was always a lot of space and dynamics in King's music. This is a 2 CD set and can be found in many different places for reasonable prices. The below video covers a little less than 1/2 of the concert.

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