Review by Fred Rudofsky
Sporting a top hat and vest, Grammy-winning artist Chris Thomas King – perhaps best known to casual music fans for his role as Tommy Johnson in the Coen Brothers’ film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” – played a diverse set of songs for an appreciative crowd at The Linda last weekend.
Born Chris Thomas, and taking the regal surname (as a likely homage to Albert, B.B., Freddie and Earl) in the 1990s, King has been surrounded by music since he was born. His father, Tabby Thomas, had regional hits in Louisiana and later ran a juke joint, Tabby’s Blues Box, for decades. King spent a good deal of his early adulthood playing at the legendary Antone’s in Austin, backing some of the greatest in the blues.
The past three years have been prolific for King, who has put his acting career on hold to pursue his blues (and at times, country) muse. Strapping on a Strat, he and his virtuoso band – Jeff Mills on drums and Danny Infante on five-string bass – opened with Antebellum Postcards’ “How Does It Feel”, a terse, vivid look at the state of the economy as the gap between rich and poor continues to grow. “St. James Infirmary” featured a dazzling extended introduction and fine vocal, too. “Want to Die with a Smile on My Face”, the song that was nearly a hit for King in the early 1990s (this reviewer still remembers King’s performance on the Letterman show), exuded a plaintive, funky vibe that in a nightclub setting would have had couples out on the floor. “Baptized in Dirty Water” brought a surreal feel, lyrically, with King declaiming “dirty water, come rushing in/ wash away my happy home/wash away my sins.” Given that he is a fan of the late Hubert Sumlin, King’s take on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killin’ Floor” was welcomed by all. He sported a smile, playing that riff that Sumlin no doubt himself had shown him years ago in Texas.
King tends to be a reticent presence in concert, preferring to let the music be the message, Still, he made some of his best connections with the audience as the night progressed when he opened up to share stories about his songs, music influences and band. Moving from guitar to piano may have been the reason. “You Know I How I Feel” was idyllic in lyric and melody, Mills playing the brushes like a reincarnated Mitch Mitchell. King spoke about the challenge of playing the electric blues pioneer Lowell Fulson
in the biopic Ray, and then drolly changed a mildly sexist lyric in “I Got a Woman,” with an interpolation of “What I’d Say” thrown in to cajole some audience participation.
Acoustic guitar and songs about sin and salvation brought out some of King’s best vocals of the night. “John Law Burned down the Liquor Store,” originally on The Legend of Tommy Johnson, brimmed with wry swagger. The a cappella rendition of “Down by the River to Pray” was a riveting gospel number, too. “I am a Man of Constant Sorrow” with the full band allowed each to shine. King’s slide playing was sublime blues, and Infante played a countrified bass solo with a fine two-handed tapping section, while Mills used every bit of the kit to bring some jazz to an old standard.
Seen by some as a traditionalist, King reminded the uninformed that he was once seen by many as a man ahead of his time. King played “Da Thrill is Gone (from Here)” from 2001’s Act II: Revelations: 2000 and Beyond, an ambitious, polarizing project that fused blues with hip hop – in this song’s case, B.B. King’s signature tune updated with rapped lyrics about urban blight. (Does it work? As a live piece, it has its merits, but trying to create a new form by relying heavily on a classic from the King of the Blues still seems a bit of a stretch.)
Called out for an encore by a loud crowd, King chose Skip James’ eerie 1930s classic, “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues,”, a showcase for some deft fretwork and near falsetto-range vocals. Ever gracious, he and his band stayed in the studio long afterwards, chatting with fans and signing CDs.
CHRIS THOMAS KING SET LIST
How Does It Feel?
St. James Infirmary (traditional)
Want to Die with a Smile on My Face
Baptized in Dirty Water
Killin’ Floor (Howling Wolf)
Let Me Go Home
You Know How I Feel
I Got a Woman (Ray Charles)
Sometimes It Hurts Instead
John Law Burned Down the Liquor Store
Come on in My Kitchen (Robert Johnson)
Down to the River to Pray
I am a Man of Constant Sorrow (traditional)
Da Thrill is Gone (from Here)
Hard Time Killing Floor Blues (Skip James)