Is a 23 Year-Old Named Kingfish Bridging the Past and Future of the Blues?Breaking News
tags: Mississippi, music, popular culture, cultural history, Blues
Carlo Rotella is a professor of English, American studies and journalism at Boston College. His most recent book is The World Is Always Coming to an End: Pulling Together and Apart in a Chicago Neighborhood.
There’s no shortage of guitar hotshots who can blaze in blues-rock fashion. Go to a jam in Boston or Chiang Mai or Sarajevo, call for “Sweet Home Chicago,” and chances are good that somebody can step up and let it rip in blues-rock style: the dramatic high bends, the soaring and plunging runs, the nasty rhythmic figures crunchingly repeated until you give in and go “Whoo!” That style of playing has a specific history, beginning with electric blues virtuosos like Buddy Guy and Albert King and B.B. King, then the classic-rock guitar heroes like Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton who idolized them, then inheritors from Stevie Ray Vaughan to Prince. But at this point it’s practically a human universal.
So why is Kingfish — who has been described by Guy as “the next explosion of the blues” and by Rolling Stone as “one of the most exciting young guitarists in years,” and who appeared simultaneously on the covers of both Guitar World and Downbeat in February 2021 — such a big deal? Why is he already taking on the role of a generational blues talent who will accept the torch from his elders and represent the genre in the mainstream — the anointed ambassador of the blues who, like B.B. King before him, will be showing up everywhere from the White House to “Sesame Street” for decades to come?
First, he’s a bluesman in full, not just another amazing guitar player who can sing a little. He has a deep, soulful voice, a powerful instrument in its own right, which these days he’s working hard to make as limber and expressive as his guitar playing. “I didn’t really work on my singing enough before,” he told me backstage before the show at Berklee. “It was always playing, practicing” — he played air guitar to illustrate — “and I just sang, like, however it came out. But now I’m to the point where I’m concentrating on my voice: increase my range, stay hydrated, do vocal exercises.” He knows that if he’s going to end up as more than just another guitar hero it will be largely on the strength of his singing. He’s also coming along as a songwriter, with a growing feel for overlaying moves borrowed from soul, gospel and other genres onto sure-footed blues grinds.
And, second, as a young Black bluesman from the Mississippi Delta, cradle of the most myth-encrusted and generative blues style, Kingfish is an ideal standard-bearer for the tradition. He can tear it up on guitar in ways that thrill those whose ears were trained by Led Zeppelin and ZZ Top, and yet he has the range to speak to those more inclined to acoustic blues on the order of Son House, gospel a la Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the soul blues of Tyrone Davis, the classic soul of the Isleys, or the lush ballads of Luther Vandross. Because he’s the one getting invited to play on “CBS Saturday Morning” and open for the Rolling Stones, Kingfish makes a point of using his growing celebrity to get other members of his generation of Black blues musicians onstage with him in venues they might not otherwise have a chance to play.
All of this suggests that Kingfish, whose second album, “662,” came out last year, can perhaps become a bridge between blues-rock and the rest of the tradition. And there’s need for such a bridge, because for decades blues-rock has hogged center stage and shoved the rest of the blues to the margins. There are plenty of other styles of blues guitar — Delta, fingerstyle, ragtime, jazz and soul subvariants — and blues doesn’t have to involve a guitar at all, but guitar-based blues-rock has achieved outsize market and aesthetic dominance because it’s favored by the sizable proportion of the blues industry’s paying audience and gatekeepers recruited since the 1960s by classic rock. Rock-trained blues enthusiasts may earnestly want to “keep the blues alive,” an often-repeated preservationist sentiment, but at the same time they’re loving the blues to death by contributing to the guitar’s eclipse of the singer’s voice that has given the genre much of its storytelling power, emotional depth and social insight.
Many of Kingfish’s most ardent admirers love to hear him wail, and he’s great at it. If it makes them and him feel good, satisfies the base and gets him reelected, why not wail all the time? Because this highly specific kind of virtuosity can also become a velvet-lined trap, an ornate dead end that Kingfish is too young and artistically ambitious to accept as the destination toward which he and the blues are heading.