The blues is like the country of Liechtenstein. Liechtenstein, nestled in the Alps, between Austria and Switzerland, is a democratic monarchy. They have a king and a parliament, but voters are also empowered to directly enact legislation, making for a democracy. The blues is also a kind of democratic monarchy, with listeners able to select the artists they want to support and a layer of blues royalty, in the form of the three Kings: Albert, B.B., and Freddie. Singer/guitarist Bernie Marsden pays tribute to those kings on Kings.
Marsden is best known as Whitesnake’s guitarist, leaving that band after 1982’s Saints & Sinners. That album featured “Here I Go Again,” which Marsden co-wrote, cementing his place in rock history (although the version from the band’s 1987 self-titled album was re-recorded by a different line-up, becoming a huge hit). Like so many English rockers of a certain vintage, Marsden was heavily influenced by American blues, including the aforementioned three Kings. Kings spotlights some of the songs those artists are most famous for, with Marsden giving them his own spin.
Luckily, that doesn’t mean rendering these classic songs unrecognizable. Marsden keeps enough of each track in place so that you recognize the originals. Conversely, it doesn’t mean note-for-note covers, where it feels like someone tried to make a Xerox of a beloved tune. Marsden wisely and calmly lays down the songs following his own north star, not copping riffs so much as capturing a vibe.
For example, on “I’ll Play the Blues for You,” made famous by Albert King (but written by Jerry Beach), it would be easy for Marsden to borrow Albert’s distinctive bending solo style (oh so many blues artists have helped themselves), but Marsden sounds like himself, even as the song has a 60s jam vibe, aided by organ, all of it helping to recall the iconic original, but not mindlessly duplicating it.
At the same time, Marsden is paying tribute to his influences, so it would be a little weird not to borrow some licks. His cover of Freddie King’s “You’ve Got to Leave Her with a Feeling” is faithful to the original, but here Marsden throws in the Albert-style big bends. And on “Same Old Blues,” another Freddie song, Marsden gives us some B.B.-inspired guitar, almost sounding like a bee that can solo rather than sting.
Marsden ends the album with two of his own instrumentals, inspired by the Kings. “Runaway” gets a little Hendrix-y, but both tracks feel a little out of place on an album that’s supposed to celebrate the work of others. It’s an interesting move, though, because while all three Kings are known for their guitar work, they were also strong singers. The vocals are too often ignored in conversations around all three artists, and while Marsden’s voice is nothing like any of his honorees, it’s solid and more than capable of finding the nuance within the songs. Tracks with vocals might have been a better way to celebrate this trio of greats
It’s tough to make a record like this, that pays respect to the album subject but that also lets fans hear from a performer they recognize, but Marsden does a great job balancing both responsibilities in a thoughtful way.
The Review: 8/10
Can’t Miss Tracks
– You’ve Got to Leave Her with a Feeling
– Same Old Blues
– Key to the Highway
– I’ll Play the Blues for You
The Big Hit
– I’ll Play the Blues for You