The Marcus King Band showcase their seemingly effortless command of the blues at their recent gig at The Wardrobe in Leeds...

Majestic exponents of rock ‘n’ roll hit up Leeds for one night only

Rock ‘n’ Roll icon Lester Bangs once professed, “Rock ‘n’ roll is an attitude, it’s not a musical form of a strict sort. It’s a way of doing things, of approaching things. Writing can be rock n’ roll, or a movie can be rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a way of living your life.” And in every sense of the word, the manifestation of this ethos presents itself as something that we as music fans see, hear and feel with every note we play, every spotlight of the stage that dazzles our childlike wonder and every tender moment we feel under the embrace of our vow to rock ‘n’ roll. And in this sentiment, I find myself in the presence of one of the finest examples of this mantra; his name is Marcus King.

Humble beginnings for a King

A proud native of Greenville, South Carolina, King burst onto the scene with the 2015 release of ‘Soul Insight,’ produced and released by King’s mentor and blues legend, Warren Haynes. Having spent his formative years studying his father Marvin Kings chops religiously and endless moonlit hours playing his grandfather’s 60’s Gibson ES-345, it wasn’t until he plucked up the courage and risked arrest by sneaking into the Orange Peel Club, in order for his music to finally reach the hands of Haynes and The Allman Brothers band. And it’s with friends like these that we begin to hear and respect the wealth of experience and pride within the Southern depths of King’s repertoire.

At the tender age of 23, Marcus King oozes the vibrancy and swagger of youth, whilst inheriting the wistful solace of an old soul; an old soul which understands that music is hopelessly desired in the notes that we don’t hear, and triumphant in the notes that we do. Credit where it’s due, King cut his teeth and earned his right to walk in the footsteps of his idols since he was a child, playing sold-out shows professionally since age 11 whilst also paying lip service to the jazz and R&B greats during his time studying jazz theory and performance at the Greenville Fine Arts Centre. In a world of technical prowess, King’s philosophy is that of passion entwined delicately with patient precision, his music eluding the callous dexterity and clinical technicality that his contemporaries demand. Passion is the voice of all emotive rationale that encapsulates the very heart and soul of what makes his audience human and most imperatively, what makes his audience alive.

Live and Direct

It is with great pleasure that I was able to witness the gospel of The Marcus King Band at The Wardrobe, the heart of Leeds cultural quarter and a legendary venue in its own right, celebrating twenty years of service to the local community as an independent venue, moreover, twenty years serving as a beacon of grassroots culture and excellence in the arts. Before the doors even open spiralling downward to the smoke-laden, sparkling twilight of the stage, the sheer intimacy of The Wardrobe serves as a wicked canvas to heighten the excitement and tension of the sold-out crowd, as they gather to experience the holy trinity of Marcus King’s blues; this is his Church.

Touring in support of the Dan Auerbach produced ‘El Dorado,’ the set is riddled with odes to blues and soul classics, as well as paying homage to his contemporary peers, opening song ‘Turn It Up’ is a foot-pounding affair that harbours the cool seduction of ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone,’ before King’s iconic Gibson ES-345 screams its way through an extended jam that would muscle The Allman Brothers ‘Mountain Song’ out of the ring. ‘The Well’ could easily sneak on to the Black Keys acclaimed ‘El Camino’ without leaving any breadcrumbs and yet the song holds its own identity. Braving the tightrope that artists often plunge from; genuine originality and wearing your influences too openly on your sleeve to the point that they are ripped off, King delivers songs like these with a conviction that cannot be scrutinised; his path righteous, vision clear and the certitudes of his artistic expression almost monolithic in stature.

Beautiful Stranger

Sorrow and joy entwine throughout the night as if the music is the essence and lifeblood of all we feel when the blues reaches out for a shy second and takes a glimpse at our fragility, ‘Beautiful Stranger’ is the orchestra commanding the essence of our will to breathe and share our burdens with that precious second in time, ‘beautiful stranger, you’re like an angel to me.’ This song is raw, tender, cathartic and true; a wonderful example of a young man braving the danger of love, trust and innocence, the gentle swing of Jack Ryan’s drums cradling the audience across gentle waves of 60’s inspired dancehall rhythms. Coupled with soulful ‘Young Man’s Dream,’ I found myself dazzled and enlightened as echoes reminiscent of Amy Winehouse find their way into the performance and soothe the aches of the audience’s collective affections. 

The band’s ability to cross genres without hesitation is testament to the skill and camaraderie they share, it’s also no surprise given the ocean of influence they draw from, King often citing soul and jazz deities such as Etta James, Janis Joplin and John Coltrane as inspiration for his vocal delivery, whilst the energy of Robin Trower and Curtis Mayfield fuel the tireless, rumbling steamroller of Jack Ryan and Stephen Campbells rhythm section. Furthermore, Dane Farnsworth’s performance behind the Hammond organ transcends the tired notion that keys are merely textural, instead, the stage is his canvas to shred his way through funk-laden cascades and euphoric crescendos that cry like The Temptations ‘Who’s That Lady’ riding an ecstasy high.

The Gear Behind the Tone

Considering the musical and technological landscape we currently exist in; the band stays true to the vintage standard they so proudly swore an oath to. Apart from using an IEM system, the choice of gear to craft their sound is equally at home in 2020 as it was in the blues clubs of the Deep South in 1975. King’s signature 1962 Gibson Custom ES-345, ‘Big Red’ and Custom Shop Les Paul growl and bark through a gumbo of Orange Rockerverb 50mkII’s and matching 4×12 cabs, paired with a Fender Super Reverb for top-end sparkle. Though King’s sound has an often darkly distinct fuzz, his tone is polished by the mid-bite and clarity of a TS9 Tubescreamer, when he needs to muscle his way through the watercolours of the band’s soundscape. Part of the beauty of Marcus King’s sound is how sparingly his pedalboard is used, the only shoe gazing comes in the form of a Cry Baby Wah which he kicks on sporadically throughout the set in true Hendrix fashion, though it’s most creatively used as an envelope filter when exploring the bands more psychedelic fantasies, King abusing his guitar in the hurricane of grace and tenacity only a true master demands of their instrument.

One of the things that really illuminated my adoration during the evening was just how seamless and prolific the band are as musicians, weaving in and out of each other’s collective consciousness effortlessly without the need to overtly throw their chops around to achieve alpha status, each member bringing a unique style and breadth of experience to the performance in a melting pot of all that is righteous about vintage rock ‘n’ roll, one that ignites the urge to dance and stamp your feet with reckless abandon. They work together to manipulate each ebb and flow of the performance like a soft river navigating its way to the open sea, trading licks with one another like they share the same thoughts, the kind of chemistry one can only understand if they have experienced that coveted plateau of sharing a moment of pure synergy with your brothers in arms.

Hitting Their Stride

By now the band have really begun to hit their stride as Carolina Confessions staple ‘How Long’ rings through the swaying venue, each member of the audience in the palm of King’s hand as he slows the momentum of Ryan and Campbell’s rumbling juggernaut to a whiskey fuelled South Carolina swagger, ‘we’re gonna let the set simmer, cool it down,’ whispers King with a wry smile, the kind of silver-tongued purr that a true performer adorns as they command the audiences primal inhibitions. ‘Call negativity the Devil, we’re in Leeds, we’re about to have a good time,’ the crowd erupts euphorically, desperate for another assault of the senses as the band sail into a medley of ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’ and Muddy Waters classic ‘Hoochie Coochie Man.’

It is here that we really begin to witness the almighty will of this young preachers virtuosity, the tumbling waterfall of Texas blues chops echoing throughout the walls of The Wardrobe reminiscent of Stevie Ray Vaughan circa 1985, the guitar an extension of his physical and spiritual self-weaving through the symphony of raw power and igniting these renditions of blues classics like wildfire, every note screaming the blues, every soaring overbend dragging the crowd with them against their will. 

When considering the relevance of the blues in modern times, many would be correct to recognise the assumption that it is an outdated genre, flogged to death by the contemporaries of the White Stripes era when the blues and fuzz rock fraternised shamelessly. However it is in the tender moments of ‘One Day She’s Here’ that we see a flickering glimpse inside the tender humanity of Kings craft, his voice breaking into gentle whispers of pathos expressing his fragility without shame and abandon; an old soul teaches the young man the trials of a love we all must endure, and it is in moments like this when live music unites and nurtures all we are, the sorrow we feel, the joy we embrace and all we love about the blues.

Individual Excellence

There is an unreserved elegance in each member of the bands playing tonight, the collective crown they adorn under Kings moniker is a testament to their skill and artistry. Never overindulgent, Farnsworth and Ryan’s collective phrasing is unrivalled and stylistic in accompaniment with the pseudo-brass vocal section of Justin Johnson and Dean Mitchell, creating a lush score for Marcus to riff upon during the highlight of ‘Say You Will,’ Campbell’s bass throbbing with such articulation that he is a part of the stages very foundation. 

If tonight’s performance serves as an awe-inspiring masterclass of modern blues, I am kept in warm stead by the applauding crowd who share the intrigue of what the future holds for this bright young star, blossoming into the coveted heavyweight status of rock royalty, for on this night, The Marcus King Band are the masters of all that make us feel alive; the supersonic, symphonic cascade of raw soul power. As the evening draws to a triumphant close, the audience revel in the power of Kings aura, it is rare that we as fans are able to cherish pure moments of musical majesty when they arise, and tonight is such an example of how the blues that was so painfully forged by the likes of BB, Freddie and Albert King, is still very much alive. At the table of Kings, this young South Carolina native, has earned his place to sit amongst the royalty of blues.

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