Young, eager and extremely well versed in blues history, King Solomon Hicks strikes a colorful balance between a traditional blues tribute and new submissions to the blues canon on his debut album, Harlem. His reverence for blues lore and legend is evident in his playing, arrangements, and selection of easily identifiable covers. He also leaves a little room for a couple of cross-genre renditions and guitar voicings that show a welcome willingness to add some personal flair.
As the album progresses through its eleven tracks, the overall feeling is that Hicks gradually loosens up both his playing and his writing. Obviously, as a studio album, this is not a result of playing through opening jitters of a live recording, and nor would this be likely from a musician who has been playing large gigs since the age of 13. It appears to be the result of the songs moving from calculated blues standards and motifs into more organic and open structures, rhythms and riffing. Purists might be happier with some of the early tunes, and seekers of modern reimaginations may prefer the back side, but the sheer quality of Hicks and his ensemble make it likely to be enjoyed cover-to-cover by all.
“I’d Rather Be Blind” opens the set and quickly establishes that Hicks and company have a solid grasp of how to cut a great blues track even if nothing here is particularly groundbreaking. A snappy delivery of a familiar blues tale of hardship and lost love, Hicks takes a few cues from B.B. King with repeated call and response exchanges between his voice and guitar. “Every Day I Have The Blues,” perhaps best popularized by King, diverges from previous renditions with a sonic palette that turns up the aggression through an overdriven, crunchy riff, reminiscent of Clapton’s version of “Crossroads.”
“421 South Main” is the first of three instrumentals on Harlem, and one of the album’s best tracks. Amidst organ bursts and a continual trading of guitar licks, it’s also the first song of the set that presents Hicks as not only a serious, calculated student of the blues, but as a natural guitarist who can share his joy of music effortlessly and unselfconsciously. “Riverside Drive” is another wordless jam that features Hicks’s guitar telling the tale, while graciously allowing some of the backing band a little more space in the mix.
Two of the covers are notable, if for nothing more than their unexpected inclusion on an album predominantly centered around blues guitar. The band transforms Gary Wright’s “Love Is Alive” from a keys-based ode to peace and love, into a funky guitar instrumental closer to the style of something one might expect out of the late Freddie King, and although not as successful, a certain amount of credit is due for tackling Blood, Sweat & Tears’s “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know.”
The flanged-out guitar and vocal tones of “It’s Alright” add some more breadth to the album as a cool, laid-back track that is unexpected on an album titled Harlem. However, Hicks pulls it off through a mix of chops and chutzpah, and by the time he resolves the album on Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me,” he finds himself back to the origins of the blues, but with a bit more relaxed confidence than expressed at the outset of the LP.
Harlem won’t end up on every blues aficionado’s “best of 2020” list, but the album is a great debut throughout, and there are a lot of great moments and standout tracks. Although he is still coming into his own voice as a musician, Hicks is undeniably a talent who has mastered the art form, and is a joy to listen to. Most importantly, the risks he does take on this album mostly find their mark and give a glimpse of what might be to come from a very promising bluesman.
The Review: 8/10
Can’t Miss Tracks
– Every Day I Have The Blues
– 421 South Main
– It’s Alright
– Help Me
The Big Hit
– 421 South Main
Review by Willie Witten