POP REVIEW : King's Fingers, Voice in Fine Fettle Despite Setbacks

Albert King lost some luster from a strong performance at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano by protesting too much Tuesday night.

The veteran blues guitarist, who opens a four-night stand at Concerts by the Sea tonight, spent the early portions of his two-hour set battling a balky guitar string that refused to stay in tune and eventually broke.

The rough arrangements by his five-piece backing band left the impression that new members were being worked in--a suspicion confirmed when King announced later that the rhythm guitarist and bass player were playing their first gig with him. But King's performance had only suffered slightly from those drawbacks during the first 90 minutes. He was also forced to sit on a stool to rest a bad leg. But if his leg hurt, his voice and fingers were in fine fettle.

The near-capacity crowd was primed to cheer his guitar work and he rose to the occasion with the emotional playing that has influenced rock heroes from Jimi Hendrix to Stevie Ray Vaughan.

King coaxed a distinctively spiky, metallic tone from his Flying V, but it was a masterful economy of phrasing and use of dynamics that marked his instrumental forays.

He was at his best when the music dropped down soft and slow and the guitar played off his husky, plaintive voice.

"Crosscut Saw" was a virtual compendium of his trademark licks, but King tossed in enough new tricks during the set to indicate that he's not just resting on his considerable laurels. But, he also proved to be his own worst enemy by pressing on with ragged versions of two classics, "Born Under a Bad Sign" and the more recent "Raining in California."

The irony is that his repeated apologies for the under-rehearsed band--which acquitted itself quite capably under the circumstances--during those songs wouldn't have been necessary had King not played so long.

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