If I were to say BB King by way of Robert Cray, with a pinch of Eric Clapton – and I did just say that, didn’t I? – then that alone would give you a pretty good handle on this debut album by King Solomon Hicks.
What’s that? You want details? Whether it’s any good, that sort of thing? Oh, okay – here goes.
|King Solomon Hicks - looks like a chirpy little fella, doesn't he?|
If ever Robert Cray comes a cropper and needs a stand-in to fulfil some dates on the road, then 25-year old King Solomon Hicks is just the fella, judging by some of the stuff on Harlem. His airy, soulful vocal on the laid back swinging opener ‘Rather Be Blind’ – nothing to do with Etta James, by the way – is the first clue to this, while his neatly pinging single-note guitar work is very BB. But if that doesn’t convince you of the resemblance, then the slowish blues of ‘What The Devil Knows’ is so very Smooth Bob that it will surely do the job. And in case you think I’m being chippy, I should add that on the cover of Blood Sweat & Tears’ ‘Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know’ Hicks’ vocal is full of feeling and impeccable phrasing. An even slower blues, it has bongos adding a Latin vibe and subtle washes of organ, and it's a good example of the glossy production courtesy of Kirk Yano.
The closing cover of Sonny Boy Williamson’s ‘Help Me’ is another slowie that’s redolent of Cray, but in this case garners bonus points for Hicks’ patient, pinpoint guitar licks, its well arranged brooding backing, and the closing coda that lifts the tempo for some additional guitar-picking exploration over ‘Peter Gunn’ like chording.
And that about covers the Cray-fish aspect. BB King though, is well to the fore again on the tush-shaking instrumental ‘421 South Main’, which is all shuffling drums, ringing organ, and sparkling, stinging guitar. There may not be any horns, but funnily enough it’s even more BB-esque than Hicks’ cover of ‘Every Day I Sing The Blues’. Is it just the fact that the bass line and the horns on the latter borrow from the riff to ‘Crossroads’ that brings Clapton to mind? Or is it the higher energy level and dirtier guitar sound that Hicks brings to bear?
Hicks has some other cards up his sleeve too. The lazy strut of ‘Headed Back To Memphis’ creates a nice change of pace, its slide guitar combining with organ in the background to create a woozy feel. A cover of Gary Wright’s ‘Love Is Alive’ – he of Spooky Tooth and ‘Dreamweaver’ – is funky, with sax alternating between squawking and smooth, the latter blending with mellow, sun-dappled guitar breaks. And ‘Have Mercy On Me’ is a dose of rattling gospel over a Bo Diddley-inflected rhythm, which doesn’t really go anywhere but has some fun not arriving.
If there’s a standout though, it’s ‘It’s Alright’, a cover of an obscure 1964 hit for Beat Boom warbler Adam Faith, of all people. But in the hands of Hicks and his knob-twiddler Yano it’s turned into a modern groove with Hicks adding a touch more rasp to his voice to go with the grinding ‘Rocky Mountain Way’-ish rhythm guitar and his squelchy lead, which sounds like Joe Louis Walker’s been let loose with his effects toy box. I like it.
I can’t say I love Harlem – I prefer a bit more grit in my oyster myself. But you’d have to be a hard-hearted bastard who hates motherhood and apple pie not to like it. And young Mister Hicks certainly shows enough talent to be a welcome addition to the new generation of blues players.
Harlem is released by Provogue Records on 13 March.