It was Christmas night, 1976, and Freddie King was onstage at the New York Ballroom in south Dallas. A larger-than-life character, the hulking King was pouring on the Texas blues--his guitar screaming out the chunky lines that rock guitarists everywhere still lift, his powerful voice bouncing between a bellow and a whisper. Few who saw him that night would have believed it would be his last show. Three days later, however, the effects of Freddie King's lifestyle came calling. Heart failure, a blood clot and bleeding ulcers combined to end the life of one of the most influential Texas electric-blues performers.
For those who caught it, King's last show remains a vivid memory. One of those who won't forget was King's second guitarist that night, a young Texan named Joe Kubek. Now leading his own band, Kubek admits that Freddie King's death still saddens him.
"Freddie was my idol," Kubek says. "His playing and Albert King's were my textbooks. I hated to see him go."
But Kubek also gets touchy over the frequent comparisons of his blues guitar style to Freddie King's.
There is some justification for the claims that Kubek has ripped King off. But after listening to a live set or his band's new album, it's obvious that while he owes a lot to King, Kubek has built his own style. He is closest to his mentor in the spirit, not the style, of his playing. "It doesn't matter how many notes you play or how fast or how slow you are," Kubek says in his soft Texas drawl. "Freddie always told me if you feel it, then the people are going to feel it. And that's what it's all about."
A stocky Texan, uncommonly quiet and polite, Kubek favors high-top tennis shoes and a guitar-shaped earring. The leader of the Smokin' Joe Kubek Band since 1985, Kubek put its current edition together three years ago. That group recently released its debut, Steppin' Out Texas Style, on Rounder's Bullseye Blues label.
Infinitely more polished and mature stylistically than most blues debuts, Steppin' Out Texas Style puts Kubek on the blues map in a hurry. It also pushes him to the forefront of the latest generation to inherit the Texas blues tradition. Kubek's style also shows the influence of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Johnny Winter and the granddaddy of electric Lone Star blues, T-Bone Walker.
"What makes Texas blues different from the rest is not electricity but aggressiveness," Kubek says. "I'm not saying people outside Texas aren't aggressive, but here there are a lot of guitar players and if you don't get good quick, you're gone."
Musically, Steppin' Out Texas Style is the typical mix of slow grinds and up-tempo rockers. What makes this debut different from most is the well-honed, veteran band. While most young bands have a lot of learning to do, these boys are all growed up. Their playing is tight from the opening cut and they have a mature, distinct style throughout. Rough edges are few and far between. It's rare when a relatively unknown band makes a first album this good. Evenly divided between originals and covers, the ten-cut Steppin' Out relies on the one-two punch of Kubek's lead, slide and tremolo string skills and the solid vocals of B'nois King (no relation to Freddie or Albert). The band's sound is anchored by the evenhanded rhythm section of bassist Greg Wright and drummer Phil Campbell.
Campbell is also the group's most prolific songwriter. Most of the originals on the new record are his. Like Kubek, Campbell spent time playing with Freddie King, and, after King's death, did a stint in Stevie Ray Vaughan's band.
A sure sign of the group's maturity is its intelligent selection of covers, which include Big Bill Broonzy's "Hands on It," Willie Dixon's "That's All I Want" and Jimmy McCracklin's "Steppin' Out." Kubek and company manage to put their own spin on these well-worn classics. The strongest tune on the entire record is a searing cover version of Jimmy Reed's immortal "Natural Born Lover." Session player Gerald "Lover Lou" Sazon opens the track by shouting, "Smokin', gimme some of that Texas slide guitar!"
As good as Smokin' Joe's hot 'n' nasty guitar is B'nois King's voice. A smooth, supple singer with decent range and power, King also plays second guitar in the band.
King met Kubek at a Monday night blues jam at Dallas' Poor David's Pub in 1988. Until then, Kubek had played with other Dallas blues acts like Little Joe Blue, Charlie Robinson and Al "T.N.T." Braggs before forming his own group and working the Texas version of the "chitlin circuit."
A native of Monroe, Louisiana, B'nois King lived all over Texas before settling in Dallas in the mid-Eighties. The most intriguing thing about King--besides his name, which is the result of his bayou heritage--is that he's a jazz guitarist in vocalist's clothing. Although he's now playing blues with Kubek, King still manages to get out and gig with a jazz trio when he's home in Dallas. Speaking of names, any guitarist who takes on a nickname like "Smokin'" is asking for trouble. Kubek says the name was cooked up by an overzealous club owner in Irving, Texas, who needed a name for a impromptu group Kubek was fronting.
"Here I am, leading a last-minute pickup band, and I drive up to this club and up on the marquee is `Smokin' Joe Kubek and the Electric Tennis Shoes.' Man, I almost died laughing," Kubek remembers. "Somehow, though, the Smokin' bit stuck. And it's been keeping my fingers sore ever since."
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Smokin' Joe Kubek will perform at Mountain Preserve Reception Center on Wednesday, October 23. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.
Joe Kubek gets touchy over the frequent comparisons of his blues guitar style to Freddie King's.
"What makes Texas blues different from the rest is not electricity but aggressiveness."
Steppin' Out Texas Style puts Kubek on the blues map in a hurry. "I drive up to this club and up on the marquee is `Smokin' Joe Kubek and the Electric Tennis Shoes.'