First of all, I must own up to being like a teenage fan-boy where Bernie Marsden is concerned…ever since I heard him play on the 7” white vinyl, Whitesnake debut (Snakebite EP) released in 1978, I became a massive fan of his tone, his ability to wrench melody, power and emotion from those six strings. (I’m the same with Bernie’s one-time cohort, Micky Moody who you can blame for my obsession with slide guitar.) Apart from buying every Whitesnake album, I sought out everything he’s ever laid down on tape: from Babe Ruth through to PAL, Alaska and all of his post ‘Snake material and sessions. It cost me a bob or two, but it is more than worth it when I listen to his output with Moody (including an expensive e-bay purchase of a Christmas 2000 concert that was only sold at gigs) and solo albums and sessions such as Chick Churchill, the Frankie and Still Crazy soundtracks and even his appearance on a Whitesnake tribute album! Pride of place in my collection are the CDs I bought from Bernie’s website; all signed, all sheer genius…Bernie Plays Rory, the superb Big Boy Blue, the even more superb Going To My Hometown…the list is as long as my credit card bill! There is only one CD I’m missing: a 2001 promo called Solid Rock by the Majesticaires…I’ll find it eventually. He’s also a lovely bloke; I met him briefly in the foyer of the Colston Hall (as was) in Bristol in 1996 at a Deep Purple concert and, come to the encore, I had the immense pleasure of seeing two of my guitar heroes performing on the same stage…Bernie and Steve Morse- wonderful.
His latest release is called Kings, an affectionate, skilful and importantly, an interpretive in his inimitable style, a tribute to three of the pioneers of blues…B B King, Freddie King and Albert King; each a master of differing approaches and, in the case of Freddie, sometimes overlooked. (Needless to say, I have ‘pre-ordered it from Bernie’s site and await my signed copy and guitar pick/plectrum to add to my collection of picks/plectra that I never use!) Kings is the first in a trilogy of “Inspiration Series” being released through a collaboration between Conquest Records and Bernies’s own enterprise, Little House Music. The second, due later this year, will be songs from the immortal Chess Records label…no news yet on the unannounced one, but there may be a tactical board game theme here? The three kings aren’t evenly spread: two each for Albert and BB, six for Freddie…that’s if my LP and CD sleeves are accurate and I cannot but agree with the choices; the last thing fans would want would be all of the obvious ones plus, as I said, Freddie was the more neglected genius amongst genii. So, prepare for me to run out of superlatives as I analyse each track.
Don’t You Lie To Me was an Albert staple, although it was usually called I Get Evil by him rather than using the Tampa Red title. Straightaway we get an example of the tone Bernie coaxes out of the guitar (probably ‘The Beast’ as opposed to his signature PRS) and with his melodic voice still pure he, with the rolling rhythms of the backing band, make this a totally new, yet familiar rendition…and, guess what? Solos aplenty and they have the ex essence of true quality: the right amount of notes in the right place, played with feeling and proof, were it needed, that Mr Marsden is a king amongst Kings.
Key To The Highway by the wonderful Big Bill Broonzy was covered on Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs and also brilliantly re-interpreted by BB King with Clapton on Riding With The King…although the acoustic, washboard and harp original is exquisite and Bernie’s version on his Very Local boy album is too. The new version starts with lovely percussion before Bernie plays the acoustic melody on electric lower strings before climbing the fretboard for a lovely intro. Backed by superb bass and some nice organ, it builds beautifully and very nearly better’s Big Bill.
Help Me Through The Day was a 1972 Freddie song that Whitesnake covered on their Lovehunter album and Bernie revisits it with an extra dash of pure blues; the chord work behind the verses is short, sharp and exceedingly clever in its simplicity. The solos are…beautiful: every note wrenched from the guitar is drenched in emotion to suit the lyrics. I’ll Play The Blues For You may be familiar via Bernie’s great friend Joe Bonamassa, but it was Albert that brought to listeners consciousness in ’72. Frank Marino did a great version too, but somehow Bernie eclipses them all as, with more great backing from bass and drums, he nails this song and even gives it a kick that Albert would be proud of…the solo? Genius!
Woman Across The River came out in 1968 from soul singer Johnnie Taylor (The Allmans did it too) and Freddie bluesed it up. I would put this at the top of Freddie’s best. Bernie does a less funky, very slightly slower version. The chord work again is worth listening for and the use of a piano does put provide an extra frisson…the time changes are handled brilliantly and even verge on rock as the whole band add extra weight. The guitar runs and solo are a treat: even if you’re not a guitar mad, Bernie fan like wot I am, just listen to the emotion in every note. Help The Poor is from BB, if you want the best of his versions forget the EC ‘duet and go for the 1964 version with its horns and ‘bongo’ed’ drums and BB in full voice. Bernie gives it a twin guitar intro that works really well…the vocals utilises his lower register impressively and suits BB well. No real solo (boo!), but the phrasing he fits in around the lyrics nearly make me forgive. Me And My Guitar aficionados include Micky Moody, Leslie West and Peter Frampton (all in my collection) It’s slower than expected intro makes you wonder how it will work, then it suddenly and seamlessly it hits the bpm of the original and this is an admirable version that stands up against anyone else’s and, nearly, Freddie’s. The solo is one of Bernie’s best though and the bends are shiver-inducing.
Living On The Highway was Freddie on fire (a little known version by UK band, Stretch is worth seeking out, as is Dr Feelgood’s). Bernie somehow manages to give it a whole new sheen: the keys intro is lovely and then, as it hits the familiar Wolfman lyrics, it takes the standard rhythms but adds a genius bassline and some wonderful guitar phrasing throughout…superlatively superlative!
You Got To Love Her With Feeling was brilliantly adapted by Freddie from a Tampa Red song; Bernie stays faithful to Freddie and, although the sting Freddie used to put into the notes is preserved, he still makes it his own…the humour of the original is also preserved. Same Old Blues is already a favourite as Bernie did a version on his Stax album, and that acoustic, slide version will take some beating…this one is electric and lovely, although I can’t help but wish he’d done electric slide; a skill he has in spades but rarely displays…ah well, the new one is still a corker and the solo, chord work and sensitivity is, again, simply superb. The final two tracks are short, brand new instrumentals; the first, Runaway, is a clever and melodic blend of the three styles with some fabulous playing over a very traditional 12 bar framework…but with time signature changes to make it even more varied and fascinating.
Finally, we have Uptown Train; which is slower (not train track rhythms as the title suggests) and again blend the three styles into a glorious whole with the entire fretboard and all six strings starring in a great piece of guitar playing over another traditional blues base.
This isn’t just another tribute album; it’s a lovingly crafted, original yet empathetic reading of great guitar players by a great guitar player. Yes, I’m biased…but I am also right! Buy it, lose yourself in it, hit repeat and let the layers of sound reveal themselves…this is a very high-quality blues with feeling.
Bluesdoodles rating: 5 Doodle Paws – a stupendous album of quintessential blues; a tribute to three great guitar players by a great guitar player.
Track listing (Composer – King Performer):
1. Don’t You Lie To Me (Hudson Whitaker – Albert King)
2. Key To The Highway (William Lee Conley Broonzy, Charles Segar – BB King)
3. Help Me Through The Day (Leon Russell – Freddie King)
4. I’ll Play The Blues For You (Jerry Beach – Albert King)
5. Woman Across The River (Bettye Crutcher, Allen Jones – Freddie King)
6. Help The Poor (Charles Singleton – BB King)
7. Me And My Guitar (Leon Russell, Charles Blackwell – Freddie King)
8. Living On The Highway (Leon Russell, Don Nix – Freddie King)
9. You Got To Love Her With Feeling (Freddie King, Sonny Thompson – Freddie King)
10. Same Old Blues (Don Nix – Freddie King)
11. Runaway (Bernie Marsden)
12. Uptown Train (Bernie Marsden)
Bernie Marsden: vocals, guitars
John Gordon: bass
Jim Russell: drums
Bob Haddrell: keyboards
Pre-order a CD (with exclusive perks) of a top-quality album, inspired by the Kings of the blues, played by a virtuoso master of the form. ‘KINGS’ will also be released on all digital platforms on 23rd July 2021 and watch out for ‘CHESS later in the year.
(No surprise when iTunes moved on to more of Bernie’s solo work…but, because it’s alphabetical, I was served his blues-rock album from 1981, Look At Me Now…still as fresh as the day it was mastered….then, a long way further down came another Bernie: Mr Torme, another guitar genius of a different type entirely