Expectations can be crippling to a young artist. Many, including no less than Buddy Guy, have called Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, age 20, the future of the blues. That’s a lot of pressure for someone younger than the vintage guitars favored by so many of his peers. But on his debut, Kingfish, he lives up to, and even exceeds the hype.
Future is an ambiguous term. It can mean Ingram is carrying the torch for existing blues music, or it can mean he’s reinventing it. Despite his interesting collaborations, like supporting the rapper Rakim on an NPR Tiny Desks concert, Kingfish features Ingram working solidly in blues rock territory. But while the grooves are familiar, his guitar playing demonstrates a maturity, restraint, and passion, while his vocals are as rich and as resonant as his syrup-like guitar tone.
Broadly speaking, most contemporary blues guitarists either pull from the classic blues wells (B.B., Albert, and Freddie King, Buddy Guy, Hubert Sumlin, etc.) or start with the great interpreters (Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, etc.). Ingram grabs from everywhere, though. “Outside of This Town,” the album’s lead-off track, is pure Billy “ZZ Top” Gibbons, from the tone to the bends to the melodic hooks. One song later, on “Fresh Out,” Ingram is performing a slow blues with Guy, dropping in solos that could have been recorded 70 years ago.
Actually, that’s not quite true. Ingram’s huge tone is decidedly contemporary. It has a presence that way too few guitarists have achieved. And that’s the only tell that Ingram is working in the present. Otherwise, he’s seemingly integrated all of the blues and blues rock into his own personal style.
Ingram isn’t just about electric blues, either. The album also includes two acoustic numbers, showcasing Ingram’s mastery of dynamics. “Been Here Before” is surprisingly gentle, especially given how muscular and powerful his electric work is. “Hard Times” is an acoustic blues featuring fellow bluesman Keb’ Mo’ on resonator guitar. The tracks are impressive because of Ingram’s willingness to keep them low-key. He doesn’t feel the need to throw in needless guitar licks, but instead trusts the songs and his own voice.
Mo’ appears a few times on Kingfish. Here, on “Hard Times,” he lays down some beautiful country slide, but he plays guitar on other tracks and sings on “Listen,” a tune with an Allman Brothers sound (probably thanks to its B3 organ). Mo’ has an amazing voice and it says a lot about Ingram that he’s willing to go throat-to-throat with such a great singer. Ingram is selfless and has an admirable commitment to the song.
This was a smart debut. All of the tracks are written by some combination of Ingram and drummer/producer Tom Hambridge, with one track co-written with fellow blues wunderkind Jontavious Willis. Nothing strays too far from standard blues and blues rock fare, which, by sticking to the familiar, allows Ingram to execute everything perfectly. If his talent somehow plateaus right where it is right now, Ingram has an incredible career in front of him. But if his playing and songwriting evolve, as I strongly suspect they will, we’re in for some real genre-changing music from a smart, talented artist. I can’t wait to hear more.
The Review: 9.5/10
Can’t Miss Tracks
– Fresh Out
– Outside of This Town
– Been Here Before
– Love Ain’t My Favorite Word
The Big Hit
– Fresh Out
Review by Steven Ovadia