The Magic of Kingfish

Updated: Sep 8

The TL/DR version:21-year-old artist Christone "Kingfish" Ingram and his stellar supporting team serve up an irresistible blend of must-listen-to music on the album 662, released in July on Alligator Records. It’s a powerful foreshadowing of where blues is headed.


But most hard-core blues fans already know that.


The true magic of 662 – and especially Kingfish himself – lies in what other listeners will discover. Whether you are a curious blues newcomer, a lapsed fan, or someone who never really gave the genre much thought, 662 will change your mood and change your mind. Stream it as you read on, buy the CD, and buy a ticket when Kingfish visits your city or town.



No matter how your own tastes run, the chances are great that you will discover a few songs here that you will thoroughly enjoy.


And now, the full story …

The deal with the devil is one of the most enduring legends about Delta Blues. No one knows for sure what happened to folks such as Robert Johnson down at the Crossroads of Highway 49 and Highway 61 in Clarksdale, Mississippi. But selling one’s soul has gone down in history as the source – and the cost – of so much star-crossed success.


Well … let’s just say that that kind of storytelling is so 6-0-1.


That number refers to the old area code for all of Mississippi, not just the Delta region. In the new area code 662, established in 1999 to cover the northern half of the state, aspiring musicians don’t make deals with devils anymore. They make them with heroes and with angels.


No one epitomizes that new path to success more than Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, who appropriately chose 662 as the title of his second album on the Alligator label, following up his 2019 Grammy-nominated debut Kingfish. If you are a fan of the blues already, 662 will be an absolute feast, a blues buffet with Ingram showing an immense breadth and depth in his vocals and his guitar work.

The selection of songs – several of which are autobiographical – draws on Delta Blues, rock, and soul as sources of inspiration, not imitation. The influence of Grammy-winning co-writer/producer Tom Hambridge shows up throughout in lyrical and musical flourishes, the same kinds of touches that have enhanced Buddy Guy’s most recent albums and the work of so many other artists over the years.


Kingfish delivers a coherent overall message, namely, that it’s about heroes and angels, and the world could use more of each. If you are not really a fan of the blues, here’s a friendly invitation: set aside any preconceived notions and let the kaleidoscope of songs on 662 introduce you not only to what blues means in 2021, but what it can look, sound, and feel like for decades to come. Kingfish makes the case that blues is an excellent medium for expressing contemporary questions and issues, but without forgetting the fun, the energy, and the party time along the way. He leaves the Buddy Guy/Muddy Waters mantra of “keep the blues alive” in the rearview mirror and cruises into a bright future.


Let’s get this party started!

The first three songs come roaring through your earbuds, showing off Kingfish’s amazing range as a guitarist. The party starts right from the opening notes of the pulsating title track, “662”, a place where there’s “sound oozing from the ground, and it cuts right through,” Kingfish offers a brief tour of the region where he was born and raised. He follows that with the upbeat “She Calls Me Kingfish” which has a more traditional feel that combines Kingfish’s muscular solos and Marty Sammon’s piano. The third song in his opening salvo is “Long Distance Woman”, an exploration of difficult relationships punctuated with more of Kingfish’s exceptional and wide-ranging solos.


Then the album takes on a more thoughtful and introspective tone, a different side of Kingfish but no less magical. “Another Life Goes By” is a haunting search for answers to the events of the last few years: “Where does the hate come from? How do we make it stop? Why does doing something right take so long?” In essence, Kingfish is wondering how much has changed in the 50 years (yes it has been that long!) since Marvin Gaye asked “What’s Going On?” Kingfish’s plea:“We need to pay attention to the helpless cries, we gotta stop the madness before another life goes by.”

The next two songs are autobiographical. “Not Gonna Lie” starts with echoes of Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” and tells the story of how “music was my way out of poverty and crime” and how “showing my frustration, I let my fingers fly.” He says that he promised Buddy Guy he would keep the blues going, because it is “our history.” This is yet another song that marks Kingfish’s transition from a fun phenom to a more serious artist.


“Too Young To Remember” is a direct homage to region’s history, including the “juke joints, where homemade whiskey used to flow.” Kingfish knows the canon of the “601” stories and acknowledges that “when you see me play my guitar, you’re looking back a hundred years.” As a true native of the 662, though, he is “too young to remember, but old enough to know.” And his heroes, he says, are “still here: Jimi, BB, Buddy, and Lightnin’ Hopkins too.”


His look inward concludes with “You’re Already Gone,” a plaintive and soulful tune that may recall the edginess of the late Bill Withers, but is unmistakably Kingfish from start to finish. Then just as abruptly as the deeper phase of the album began, the party starts again with “My Bad,” which, ironically, is the only weak link in a very strong chain of songs. But even here, Kingfish’s playing more than makes up for song whose lyrics would have been more at home on his debut album than on 662.


The rest of the album is a further testament that there is no style that Kingfish can’t conquer. For “That’s All It Takes”, Kingfish steps into a time machine back to the early 1970’s, when polished pop-soul gems started to fill up the radio dial. For “I Got To See You” he offers a hint of Chuck Berry. In “Your Time Is Gonna Come” he slows things down in a more traditional blues format with a sharp edge and searing solos. Kingfish the child phenom is now in the past tense, and Kingfish the man is a force to reckon with.


The album’s last two songs have an autobiographical flavor. “That’s What You Do” chronicles life on the road for a musician, where you travel for hours to play a few songs. It’s an endless but necessary journey that usually ends with a “late-night hotel check in, for an hour in the bed, ain’t no turnin’ off, all the poundin’ in my head.” But Kingfish isn’t looking for sympathy. As he sings: “I said there ain’t no short cut, that’s what you do for the blues.” It’s also what so many of his heroes – such as B.B. King – have done before him. In a 1990 interview about B.B. King, political operative and moonlighting blues musician Lee Atwater said this about B.B. King: “What I really admire about him is his durability. There was a stretch of four or five years in the 1960’s when he wasn’t appreciated by white or black audiences. But he never quit. He still toured 340 plus nights a year.”


The rocking finale “Something In the Dirt” is a nice bookend to the title track. It is an ode to the rich musical history of Clarksdale, the place where all modern popular music can trace its roots. Kingfish has been trying to figure out what’s in that dirt and “dig it out” almost his whole life, but in earnest since he took the stage for the first time in Clarksdale at age 11 at Red’s, the venue in the photo below.


On his debut album, in the song “Before I’m Old,” Kingfish said that he “heard the call of Robert Johnson” while growing up in the 662, and learned that “too many souls are buried in the dirt-poor Delta ground.”


Well,whatever he is finding in that magical dirt, it’s working. Here’s hoping he keeps mining that Delta dirt for all it’s worth!


***

The bonus track on the CD – the anthem “Rock & Roll” – is about a true pact with an angel: Kingfish’s mother Princess Pride, who passed away in 2020. She sacrificed so that her son could “sell my soul to rock and roll.” Alligator released this beautiful song as a single in the summer of 2020. Close your eyes and you can easily imagine a time when Kingfish sings this anthem in a large arena or stadium, accompanied by thousands upon thousands of fans as his backup singers.


Frank Luby is co-founder and CEO of BluesBackroadsBaseball LLC. His book “Blues Flashbacks”, available on Amazon, was nominated for the 2021 Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) Awards for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research. Kingfish photos by Justin Hardiman, courtesy of Alligator Records. Photo of Red’s by Frank Luby.


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