Royal Blue

Koko Taylor

Alligator Records, 2000

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 07/30/2000

I have difficulty saying anything negative about Koko Taylor.

It's not that I am afraid to; it's just that it feels like anything bad I may say about her would not only be a slap in the face to the genre of blues, but would almost be like taking a sledgehammer to the foundations of Chicago itself.

But I've spent the better part of a day going over Taylor's latest release Royal Blue, and as much as I hate to say it, I'm going to have to: this is not Taylor's best work. Even the plethora of guest musicians who join in can't pull this album out of mediocrity.

Oh, sure, things get off to a strong start with tracks like "Save Your Breath," a song which harkens back to Taylor's earlier days of belting out such songs as "Wang Dang Doodle" and "Come To Mama". But sadly, moments such as this one are few and far between on my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Royal Blue.

Mistake numbers one and two: Taylor chooses to cover Melissa Etheridge's "Bring Me Some Water," and has guitar whiz-kid Kenny Wayne Shepherd sit in. Unfortunately, Taylor doesn't keep the same basic musical structure that Etheridge had in the song, and literally ruins it from its core. And as much as I think Shepherd is the second coming of Stevie Ray Vaughan, his style of playing just does not fit with Taylor's Chicago-style blues. You wouldn't put a fiddle player on a Pantera album, would you? (I just don't know what went wrong here; Taylor pulled off a great cover of a Ted Nugent song a few years back.)

Mistake number three: duetting with fellow blues legend B.B. King on "Blues Hotel". I love King's work as much as the next blues afficionnado, but the material really has to be stellar for a pairing like this to work, and the song itself is lacking. There also isn't a lot of chemistry between Taylor and King - that's kind of a surprise.

The best "superstar" pairing, surprisingly, comes with dobro guitarist Keb' Mo'; the stripped-down track "The Man Next Door" is incredibly powerful, capturing the sheer force of Taylor's vocals with the bare accompaniment of guitar and vocals from Keb' Mo'. It almost makes me wish that Taylor would do an album of songs in this vein, pairing up possibly with labelmates Corey Harris or John Jackson.

The bulk of Royal Blue keeps the listener on a teeter-totter between above-average and below-average material. For every "Ernestine" or "Keep Your Mouth Shut And Your Eyes Open," there is a "But On The Other Hand" or "Don't Let Me Catch You With Your Drawers Down". I don't always expect A-list material, but I don't like being made part of a musical ping-pong match.

Taylor is a much more capable artist than the material on Royal Blue dares to suggest. And while this album is a disappointment in the big picture, it does offer glimpses into some potentially exciting musical avenues that Taylor may wish to investigate.

Rating: C

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© 2000 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Alligator Records, and is used for informational purposes only.