Sunday, July 25, 2021

Bernie Marsden - Kings

Well, it’s a tribute album innit?  And lord knows there are always plenty of them kicking around in the blues music realm.  So what makes Kings any different from all the other runners and riders?  It’s very simple – Bernie Marsden is a master craftsman.  The guy has the blues in his veins, he can capture a modern sound while remaining true to the roots, and he has an incredibly light touch as a guitar player.  So these may be old songs originally recorded by BB, Albert and Freddie King, but our Bernie constantly conjures up moments that make them fresh and interesting.
Bernie Marsden - me and my beastly guitar!
Pic by Fabio Gianardi
Take the Leon Russell-penned Freddie song ‘Help Me Through The Day’, for example.  It’s a blues ballad emotive enough to evoke Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, delivered in deliciously patient fashion, with Marsden offering flickering gems of soulfulness with precision-tooled tone.  Way back in 1979 the song was also covered by Whitesnake on their Lovehunter album, so that one quickly recalls David Coverdale in his prime.  But while Marsden’s light voice will never have the resonance of a BB King, he’s learned over the years to bend his vocals to a satisfying bluesy feel so that DC comparisons soon pass.
Possibly the two most familiar tracks here are ‘Key To The Highway’ and ‘Help The Poor’, both of which were given 24 carat modern readings by BB King and Eric Clapton back in 2000.  Marsden’s versions may not be better, but he does put his own successful spin on them.  ‘Key To The Highway’ opens with some low-down twangery, before giving way to clear-toned, sustain-heavy guitar licks, and gentle vibrato worthy of BB.  And on ‘Help The Poor’ he deploys a chorus pedal, or some other gizmo beyond my ken, to bring a bright harmonising effect to some passages, while dropping his voice into a more meditative pitch than usual.
Major highlights include ‘I’ll Play The Blues For You’, and ‘Same Old Blues’.  The former hangs off a lazy beat from Jim Russell and sinuous, loping bass from John Gordon, while Marsden summons up yet more effortlessly magnetic guitar, making a little go a very long way.  ‘Same Old Blues’, meanwhile, combines a warm guitar sound, tinkling piano from Bob Haddrell, and some of Marsden’s best vocals to produce a great take on a great Don Nix song, suggesting a late night barstool reflection, while the barkeep patiently thumbpolishes his shot glasses.
There are uptempo pleasures too.  The opener ‘Don’t Lie To Me’ is as light as the froth on a cappuccino – a proper Italian one, that is – with tripping, hip-twisting rhythms from Russell.  And there’s plenty of grit in the rocking ‘Me And My Guitar’, on which Marsden well and truly nails the Freddie King vibe well before the teasing outro quote from ‘Going Down’ – as he also does on the self-penned ‘Runaway’, a very Freddie-style slice of instrumental boogie, with Marsden’s guitar constantly finding unusual angles of attack.  I like to imagine them having a hoot in the studio as Bernie knocked out some of the laughter-inducing guitar breaks in evidence here.
Kings is not a museum piece dedicated to BB, Freddie and Albert.  Bernie Marsden may have been inspired by them, but he doesn’t sound beholden on this relaxed, affectionate exploration of their songs.  Kings is a reminder of just how good Bernie Marsden is - which is very good indeed.  I look forward to further episodes in Bernie’s Inspirations Series.  But I’m crossing my fingers that somewhere down the line he’ll give us a couple of original albums too.
Kings is out now on Conquest Records, and can be ordered on CD here, and can be downloaded/streamed here.

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