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Critic's pick: B.B. King

B.B. King

One Kind Favor

Where would the current careers of rock and blues elders be without producers Rick Rubin and T-Bone Burnett?

Rubin, of course, is the Beastie Boys-bred studio ace favored by ear-splitters Metallica, Danzig and Slayer. But he also has re-invented the music of veterans Tom Petty, Jakob Dylan and especially Johnny Cash by simply stripping away the thick, commercial artifice that long ago weighed down their records. His next rumored makeover: ZZ Top.

Burnett has always favored a rootsier stride. He was largely responsible for the country-roots renaissance triggered by the O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Cold Mountain soundtracks. Recent albums by Robert Plant (with Alison Krauss) and John Mellencamp also benefited from Burnett's swampy, unassuming roots-music grandeur.

The next move is now Burnett's. On One Kind Favor, he teams with blues giant B.B. King. Under Burnett's direction, the clock winds back to the late '40s and early '50s with a repertoire of staples and obscurities by blues foremen Blind Lemon Jefferson, Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker and others. Not coincidentally, this was music that reigned when King's career began.

But those expecting some sort of raw, primal session of gutbucket blues should steer clear of One Kind Favor. King has never been that kind of stylist. He is an entertainer, a showbiz pro who has long embraced the blues as a production piece. The trouble with the majority of his albums over the past three decades, though, is that the blues sentimentalism at the heart of his meaty tenor moan and the jabs of electric guitar he favors over extended, conventional solos were relegated to meager roles in glossy orchestral settings, timid all-star duets and generally weak material.

One Kind Favor jettisons all of that. But it doesn't sound like 1949, either. With Dr. John's effervescent piano rumble as his ally, King takes the Jefferson gem See That My Grave Is Kept Clean down South for a modest Mardi Gras spin. I Get So Weary (written by Jean Williams but popularized by T Bone Walker) recalls King's signature tune, The Thrill Is Gone. But then, King has such a jubilant vocal manner and has cut so few genuinely downbeat blues tunes in recent years that the song's balance of late-night horns and confessional singing sound remarkably new.

Greater still is the treatment of Walker's Waiting for Your Call, a tune of forgiveness and reluctant faith that sounds tailor-made for King. The vocals boom while the horns lounge in the background like tree branches swaying slowly on a summer afternoon. This summit of cross-generational T Bones — from Walker's hapless, lyrical contentment to Burnett's rootsy cunning — sounds sterling.

Everything else on One Kind Favor glows almost as gloriously. The blend of Dr. John's mischievous piano rolls, Jim Keltner's keen percussion shuffle and the leisurely jolt of King's guitar work fuel the Mississippi Sheiks' The World Gone Wrong, while Lonnie Johnson's Tomorrow Night is transformed into a devout prayer of romantic hope.

Rediscovering the rootsy connections within the music of Plant and Mellencamp was grand enough. But to lead King back to the inspirations that ignited his tireless blues voice in the first place might just go down as Burnett's most masterful feat yet.