Blues and Cream, King Returns

Riding With the King (Reprise Records, 2000) is a summer-worthy compilation bringing together cool blues legend B.B. King and classic rock giant-cum-album producer Eric Clapton. On the cover, Clapton chauffeurs King in a glossy black Cadillac. But don't let the photo fool you. Although Clapton appears in the driver's seat, King is undeniably responsible for navigating them both toward the final sound.

The album is at once calmer than the fuzzed-up acid rock of Clapton's Cream era, yet still rougher than the sweet, falsetto coo Clapton developed as the lead singer of Derek and the Dominos. B.B. King pushes Clapton even deeper into blues territory than he has ever gone alone. Though still redolent of Clapton's high-pitched signature moan, King's presence draws out a raw, growling dimension of Clapton's voice that will pleasantly surprise even the most avid fan.

In the first set of tracks, Clapton and King explore traditional blues, most notably in King's only complete solo vocal, "Ten Long Years." In the span of a song, King leaves no doubt why he is the king of blues. Should you need more evidence, listen to "Three O' Clock Blues," and if you still begrudge the man his monarchy, go ahead and return the CD. It doesn't get any better than this.

King manipulates his vocal cords as deftly as he strokes the strings on his custom-made guitar, Lucille. But in the tradition of blues cadence, vocals make up only one third of an otherwise uninterrupted instrumental. No matter; in this case, the emphasis is on quality, not quantity. Note for note, nothing captures sheer emotion like the track "Come Rain or Come Shine." Despite the unfortunate showing by Clapton, who comes off weak and disappointingly shallow, King more than redeems the song with a mournful vibrato so tender it almost breaks your heart. Add to that a string section that moves smoothly from easy listening into funk, and you couldn't choose a more perfect ending for the album.

To get an idea how the two masters play off each other, listen to the remake, "Hold On, I'm Coming." After an alternating set of vocals, in which drawls and growls stretch to capacity in a slow motion race to the finish, Clapton and King engage in a call-and-response guitar duet that is one part conversation, one part competition. Put your money on King for this one, at least in the vocal section, since Clapton starts to get a little short of breath on a few of the more raucous roars. Not that King is any spring chicken himself at exactly 20 years Clapton's senior, but that additional mini-lifetime only seems to have improved his music. In the title track, "Riding With the King", King proclaims: "I stepped out of Mississippi when I was just 10 years old. I had a suit cut sharp as a razor and a heart of gold. I had a guitar hangin' just about waist high, and I'm gonna play this thing till the day I die." We should all be so lucky.

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