Halfway through “The Well,” a big, bluesy rocker that closes his band’s July 2020 livestream, Marcus King briefly forgets where he is and invites the crowd to say, “Yeah!” But there’s no crowd at this disturbing point in the pandemic, when most of us were trapped at home and King’s robust nine-person band performed this show on a Nashville soundstage rather than opening for Chris Stapleton on a potentially star-making tour.
“You can clap from your houses tonight,” the 24-year-old singer, songwriter and guitarist declares. “I’m sure we’ll be able to feel you if you stomp really loud.”
In focusing on the band’s then-recent album “El Dorado,” King offsets the eerie crowd-free feeling with a sort of cathartic relief. After covering B.B. King’s “Sweet Little Angel,” the singer (who is no relation to the late blues giant) mutters “getting all emotional, man.” He and his band compensate by simply rocking out.
King, the Greenville, S.C., son of a veteran guitar player in blues and gospel bands, started his recording career while still a teenager with the 2015 indie album “Soul Insight.” He has a baby face and dresses like Stevie Ray Vaughan, wearing a one-feather, Navajo-style hat and a brown vest, jeans and boots, and his voice has the touch of rumbling soul music, similar to contemporaries Chris Stapleton and Nathaniel Rateliff, only a few notches higher.
It takes a few songs for King to feel comfortable in this odd environment, until he finally goes into full-passion mode, revving up on “Love Song,” detouring lyrically through Bread’s “Make It With You.”
King leads his band through two basic approaches: a heavy-guitar-jamming, Chicago-blues style on “No Pain” and a cover of the Willie Nelson-Waylon Jennings classic “Good Hearted Woman,” and the more nuanced soul music that producer Dan Auerbach helped arrange for “El Dorado.” Without much experience playing the latter songs on stage, King and his band sometimes tiptoe through them, treating “Beautiful Stranger” and “Break” as if they’re so fragile they might fall apart. These tracks are most revealing throughout this hour-and-a-half livestream, as King sings with his eyes closed, finding his way.
‘If you don’t like that, you ain’t invited to the first show we have people at.’
By the end, the band switches fully to the first mode, showing its power and versatility. Trumpeter-trombonist Justin Johnson steps to center stage as a duet singer on “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” a song Nina Simone made famous in the late ‘60s; an amorphous jam showcases dueling keyboardists Peter Levin and Dane Farnsworth. After this hard-rocking track, King jovially tells viewers: “If you don’t like that, you ain’t invited to the first show we have people at.”
It’s a shame King didn’t get the chance to showcase his obvious star power and work out the excellent “El Dorado” on stage throughout 2020. Auerbach, a veteran producer whose day job is performing with the Black Keys, had a clear vision for how King’s beautiful voice and country-and-blues approach fit in the crevasses of classic soul music, and the album didn’t quite get the recognition it deserved in the everybody’s-streaming period from early 2020 to mid-2021. But with luck, this performance is a way of making up the difference.
Marcus King “El Dorado” Setlist
One Day She’s Here
Sweet Little Angel (B.B. King cover)
Young Man’s Dream
Turn It Up
Love Song—>Make It With You (Bread cover)—>Love Song
Say You Will
Good Hearted Woman (Waylon Jennings-Willie Nelson cover)
Too Much Whiskey
Wildflowers & Wine
I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free (traditional cover)
Plant Your Corn Early