Album review: BERNIE MARSDEN – Kings

Bernie Marsden is the subject of a two-part special on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, celebrating the release of a new album and his addition to the station’s exclusive “Featured Artists” section.  Part 1 (above) was first broadcast on 25 July, and Part 2 is also available via the station’s Mixcloud page.

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Bernie Marsden - Kings

Conquest Music  [Release date 23.07.21]

It’s seven years since Bernie Marsden’s last solo album called ‘Shine’, on which he struck the perfect balance between rock and blues

His new ‘Kings’ album, on the other hand, is the work of an elder statesman of rock once again broadening his options with a tribute album, supplemented by two excellent self penned instrumentals.

He’s long enjoyed covering the music of his heroes such as Peter Green and Rory Gallagher, while ‘Kings’ finds him taking a stab at the trio of elemental blues artists – Albert, BB and Freddie King – with a subsequent Chess Records homage in the pipeline.

The idea for this project stemmed from Billy F. Gibbons idea of playing the music of their early guitar heroes.

That being the case, I guess Bernie had to put the likes of The Swinging Blue Jeans and the Beatles on the back burner while exploring the well trodden path to the three Kings.

So the question is, does the world need another helping of the best of the three Kings? The answer is probably not. All the more kudos to Bernie Marsden then, for successfully siphoning old wine into new bottles, as well as adding two closing self-penned instrumentals which evoke his heroes on his own terms.

‘Kings’ is a solid album based on a well trodden familiarity, but refreshed by crisp arrangements and a bright sonic quality that illuminates his guitar playing.

He also strikes a nuanced balance between his rock chops and blues sensibilities, which always finds room for feel. And feel is something that has always distinguished Marsden’s playing from his rock contemporaries.

He evokes Peter Green for example, on ‘Help Me Make It Through The Day’ and he positively bristles on the ‘live in the studio’ feel of the Jerry Beach penned ‘I’ll Play The Blues For You’.

The latter requires something special to separate it from the original string led version, Albert’s horn led effort and even Marsden’s old mate Gary Moore’s keyboard-led (Don Airey) intro to yet another version.

For his part, Bernie settles into a very shrill sounding track, in sharp contrast to his own aching tone, and excellent phrasing.

His singing is also arguably the best of his career as he delivers his lines with gusto and total conviction, fattening them out with harmonies when required.

The album opens with the snap and crackle of ‘Don’t You Lie To Me’  which much like the original Albert King version, is locked in by a Cuban Latino rhythm, while Marsden glues everything together with enveloping tones and a warm vocal.

His muscular reading of Big Bill Broonzy’s ‘Key To The Highway’ is closer to Freddie than the BB’s version, while Freddie’s ‘Woman Across The River’ is short, sharp and succinct.

The whole album is essentially a balancing act of staying true to the original King covers, while adding his own oeuvre, though not everything sparkles as you might expect.

‘Help The Poor’ for example, is rooted in BB King’s version. It features a fine vocal, but misses the Latino bounce, and – in the case of the Robben Ford cover – an imperious funky feel. In sum, it doesn’t really add much to extant versions.

‘Me And My Guitar’ fares much better, being part of a big production number that is punctuated by crisp cymbal work and a sweeping organ opening instead of Leon Russell’s Muscle Shoals style piano.

No matter, there’s real frisson here as Marsden solos with real intensity. And if his vocal sounds positively smooth compared to Freddie’s guttural growl, it fits the new arrangement well. The impromptu ‘Going Down’ ending is also a satisfying replacement to Freddie’s original perfunctory finish.

‘Living The Blues’ strikes a fine balance between Freddie’s original stinging lines and Leon Russell’s boogie’s piano, but the Russell/Don Nix penned autobiographical lyrics were written with Freddie in mind,  making it difficult for Bernie to inhabit them with any real conviction.

That said, his guitar playing sparkles with a mix of feel and exuberance on an excellent track.

Then there’s ‘Same Old Blues’ which he’s covered before on Dobro, and here he applies intricate notes to good effect.

Everything flows mellifluously into his own instrumental homage to Freddie King called ‘Runaway’, on which he solos with alacrity over a drum-tight rhythm section complete with a significant tempo change.

The more languid ‘Up Town Train’ is closer to Albert King as he rounds things with long linear lines.

In fact the closing brace of instrumentals makes you wonder why Bernie didn’t run with the baton to the finish line and fill the whole album with his own self penned homage to the three Kings, rather than rely on the tried and tested?

That said, there’s plenty to enjoy here from a dependable British blues rocker and tone king who clearly enjoys reliving his youth.  ****

Review by Pete Feenstra

David Randall presents a weekly show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, Sundays at 22:00 BST (GMT+1, repeated on Mondays and Fridays), when he invites listeners to ‘Assume The Position’. This show was first broadcast on 12 September 2021 and includes the Top 10 albums at for that week.

UK Blues Broadcaster of the Year (2020 and 2021 Finalist) Pete Feenstra presents his weekly Rock & Blues Show on Tuesday at 19:00 ( BST, GMT+1) as part of a five hour blues rock marathon “Tuesday is Bluesday at GRTR!”. The show is repeated on Wednesdays at 22:00, Fridays at 20:00). This show was first broadcast 14 September 2021.

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