“American Man (In the Key of Free)” is one of many surprises on Grammy-winner Chris Thomas King’s first studio album in five years. Known primarily as a blues artist, the Baton Rouge singer, guitarist and songwriter opens Hotel Voodoo with “American Man,” a pop-rock anthem along the arena-rousing lines of Bruce Springsteen. Straightforward and catchy, “American Man” could be a mainstream hit—if not a hit for King, an indie artist, then maybe for a popular country act who’s backed by a major-label marketing machine.
King has explored a variety of music during his 31 years as a recording artist. He’s done the fiery Jimi Hendrix rock-blues guitar thing. He followed the traditional acoustic blues route. He mixed blues, rock and hip-hop into his “21st century blues.”
The 10-song Hotel Voodoo gives an even broader look at King’s versatility. In addition to the opening anthem, the album presents King as a guitar-wielding blues-rocker in the Stevie Ray Vaughan mode (“Have You Seen My Princess”); juke-joint veteran (“Friday Night Bleu”); folk singer (“Rainbow Lullaby”); neo-classic, primal rocker (“Rock and Roll Conjurer”); and New Orleans music–inspired composer (“Tabby’s on the Bayou” and “Les Bleus Was Born in Louisiana”).
Hotel Voodoo is a concept album, divided into an A side and B side. In Side B’s “Jelly Roll Suite,” “Les Bleus Was Born in Louisiana” challenges long-held dogma about the origin of blues music, a topic King has written a forthcoming book about. In this joyful, swaying song based on traditional New Orleans jazz, King sings: “The blues was born in Louisiana, not Mississippi or Texarkana. It’s a French word. They don’t understand. How can it be sad when it makes you want to dance?”
King performs one non-original, his piano-based take on Adele’s “Someone Like You.” Unfortunately, anyone who dares to sing a song popularized by a singer as powerful as Adele is instantly disadvantaged. King’s much more at home with “Tabby’s on the Bayou,” a nostalgic and fun ode to Tabby’s Blues Box and Heritage Hall, the genuine juke joint that King’s father, Tabby Thomas, operated in Baton Rouge for decades. King is carrying on “Rockin’” Tabby’s tradition and exploring bold new paths.