The golden one

Marcus King lowers the mic into the depths of his soul

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Marcus King
David McClister

Marcus King fans can expect one thing for certain when they see King and his band live on tour behind the guitarist’s new album, El Dorado: This won’t be a rehash of what’s on the record. 

“My least favorite thing is to hear someone basically put a cassette player on when they get on stage,” King says. “That’s no fun.”

Some of the songs on El Dorado have forced King and his band to divert from their studio versions. On ballads such as “Break” and “One Day She’s Gone,” King prominently incorporates strings, while thick retro-styled backing vocals are a big part of the song “Beautiful Stranger.” These elements are not in the instrumental/vocal arsenal of the Marcus King Band, which includes singer/guitarist King, drummer Jack Ryan, bassist Stephen Campbell, trumpet/trombone player Justin Johnson, sax player Dean Mitchell and keyboardist Dane Farnsworth.

It hasn’t taken long for the El Dorado songs to transition into their own entities live, King says.

“We’ve been test driving them for awhile, and they’re just becoming different songs out here, staying true to what they are, but obviously, we don’t have a string section out here and we don’t have as many vocals and we don’t have a full horn section,” King says. “So it’s a lot different out here, man, and I think anybody that comes to see the live show would agree.”

The ballads on El Dorado have a lushness not brought to the three previous Marcus King Band records. Meanwhile, other songs, like “The Well” (a full-on bluesy rocker), “Turn It Up” (whose percolating textures and driving tempo create a welcome tension) and “Young Man’s Dream” (which shifts from a gentle acoustic opening to a full-bodied country-tinged tune), bring a nice musical range to the album.

The latter song is one of several on which King sings in falsetto — something he had never done before. King discovered his falsetto range quite accidentally during the recording session for El Dorado.

“I was just a little tired one night, and the concept of the microphone, think about it: They can turn it up as loud as you want to go,” King explains. “Some of my favorite singers whispered their [vocal] tracks pretty much. It doesn’t sound like that [on the new album]. So I did that (falsetto) just because I was a little tired one night and I just took that approach. I’m sure as hell glad I did.”

Along with introducing strings, horns, backing vocals and his newly discovered range into his sound, something else makes El Dorado different for King.

 It’s the first Marcus King solo album. Although the Marcus King Band is very much intact, circumstances led King to step away from his group to make the new album. 

“The opportunity availed itself to be able to work with some legends, like (drummer) Gene Chrisman and (keyboardist) Bobby Wood,” King says, mentioning two musicians who were original members of the Memphis Boys, the house band at Chips Moman’s famed American Sound Studio (they played on Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” and Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds” and many other famous songs). 

“I had to make a decision, and I’m glad that I did it,” he adds. “I feel it’s important to step away from the norm every now and then. It refreshes you in all senses of the word.”

It makes sense that King would have been well aware of Chrisman, Wood and the production work of Moman.

Growing up in Greenville, South Carolina, King’s father and grandfather were musicians who introduced King to a wide range of blues, soul, country and rock ‘n’ roll at a young. He paid attention and build a deep knowledge of those genres and the pioneering musicians at their helms. By age 4, King had his first guitar and was learning to play. He did his first performance at age 8, and by age 10 or so, King had joined his father’s soul-rooted band, which taught him key lessons about music, performing and running a band.

King didn’t waste time striking out on his own, forming his first band at age 14. But it wasn’t until 2014 that he got his big break. That’s when he met Warren Haynes, guitarist/singer in Gov’t Mule (and previously the Allman Brothers Band), who was impressed enough by King to sign him to his Evil Twin Records label. That label re-released the first Marcus King Band album, Soul Insight, in 2015. That album, originally self-released the year prior, featured a substantially different lineup than the present Marcus King Band.

The current edition of the group came on board in time to make 2016’s self-titled Marcus King Band — the group’s first release on Fantasy Records. Produced by Haynes, the album reached No. 2 on Billboard’s Top Blues Albums.

Then for 2018’s Carolina Confessions, King worked with in-demand producer Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell, to name just a few), who helped the Marcus King Band create a more song-focused album that flowed smoothly between blues-tinged rockers, songs with some Memphis soul and more acoustic fair with a country flair.  

For El Dorado, King teamed with another in-demand producer, Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys.

“Well, we started writing together a couple of years ago,” King says. “He (Auerbach) called me out of the blue, or his manager called me out of the blue, and said, ‘Dan wants you to come to Nashville and do some writing.’ That really sparked a good friendship and a good writing partnership. I ended up moving to [Nashville] about a year later (in late 2018).”

Despite the wide range of instrumentation, El Dorado came together quickly. King’s writing sessions with several respected tunesmiths (Paul Overstreet, Ronnie Bowman and Pat McLaughlin) took only about a week and a half, and recording was finished in three days. Auerbach, it turns out, is anything but fussy in the studio.

“Dan’s very similar to me as far as he likes to get in there early in the morning and work until late at night. So you’re getting a lot of hours in,” King says. “There’s not a lot of thought to what else can we add to this track. ‘The Well’ is a prime example of the way this album came to be because what you hear on the record is what we cut that night. The only thing we added to it was the handclaps, which we did that night, and when we left the studio we had a finished track that night… That’s the nature of Auerbach. There’s no need to overthink something. Just let it be what it wants to be.”

The presence of so many ballads on El Dorado (a half dozen in all) wasn’t premeditated, either.

“I’ve never sat down with a kind of song in mind. I like to allow the song to be whatever it needs to be, however I need to say it. That’s been the way for all of my writing,” King says. “The soul ballads were just what I like to do, man, I like to take a microphone and lower it down into my soul, into the depths of it. Whatever’s jangling around in there, that’s what you hear.”  

ON THE BILL: Marcus King Band — with Dee White. 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 14, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., Boulder. 

7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 15, Ogden Theatre, 935 E. Colfax Ave., Denver.