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Color of the Blues

Dallas guitarist Smokin' Joe Kubek was playing obscure, backroom blues circuit gigs before he could qualify for a driver's license. A few years later, the '70s reared its ugly head long enough for the musician to flirt with hard rock. But Zeppelin and Foghat aside, Kubek came to realize that true artistic love was more important than commerce -- and he returned to the blues.

As it turned out, he made the right choice -- financially and creatively. Kubek honed his skills in a variety of supremely archetypal live music joints in South Dallas, and he toured with, backed and recorded with such artists as Freddie King, Al "TNT" Braggs, Ernie Johnson and Little Joe Blue. In time, he began to lead his own band. But though they worked steadily, he knew something integral was missing. Meanwhile, Monroe, Louisiana's B'nois King had gone about his musical education in similar yet disparate fashion. After studying jazz, gospel and guitar in school -- while earning money on a milk truck -- King scored a few paying gigs and decided music was a far more entertaining route to a paycheck.

Along the way, King discovered that, in addition to his skill as a guitarist, he also had a terrifically evocative voice. And when he landed in Dallas and by chance jammed with Kubek, it was one of those sorcerer's moments. A few weeks later, King sat in with Kubek again and, for all practical purposes, the Smokin' Joe Kubek Band featuring B'nois King was born.

In the biracial tradition of another killer Texas blues band, Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets featuring Sam Myers, Kubek and King present an intriguing on-stage dichotomy. Kubek is a soul-patched giant with corn-colored hair and searing, speed-anchored fret work. By contrast, King, who looks not unlike former Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith, counters with smooth, intricate, rhythm-laced guitar figures and yearning, playful, not-of-this-earth vocals. How compelling the mix is was clear from the pair's inaugural CD, Ax Man, released by a Belgian label in 1991. From there, it wasn't long before Bullseye, the noted Rounder blues subsidiary label, inked the band to a contract. Also in '91, they released a virtual primer on Texas electric blues titled Steppin' out Texas Style. The juxtaposition between stellar instrumentation and a loose, jamming feel worked in shimmering fashion, and before long, the group was criss-crossing the country and playing to a rapidly expanding fan base.

In the last five years they've released several more albums, including Chain Smokin' Texas Style, Texas Cadillac and the recently released Got My Mind Back, all of which capably whip up mixtures of King's clever originals and crackling covers of the likes of Willie Dixon, T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed. The group was nominated a few years back for a W.C. Handy Award, and the new album has already reached number one on the Living Blues radio poll. The best blues is a delicate commodity that requires a reverence for the past as well as an originality. In the capable four hands of B'nois King and Joe Kubek, an art form as old as the nation will enter the new millennium in fresh, reverent fashion.

-- Rick Koster

The Smokin' Joe Kubek Band Featuring B'nois King performs at 9 p.m. Friday, July 18, at Billy Blues Bar and Grill, 6025 Richmond. Cover is $8. For info, call 266-9294.

Soul Hat -- Reunions can be awkward, emotionally draining affairs marked by a weird mixture of euphoria and licking of old wounds. Maybe that's why Kevin McKinney and company regard the long-anticipated reconvening of their semi-storied Austin groove outfit Soul Hat with equal amounts optimism and "whatever happens, happens" practicality. And who can blame them? After all, Soul Hat's 1995 unraveling ranks among the most untimely breakups of a thriving Texas phenom in recent memory. Come quitting time, the band had already conquered its home state, and then some. Success, however, couldn't mend the rift between the quartet's founding members, McKinney and guitarist Bill Cassis. Apparently, the scars ran deep enough to prevent Cassis's return to the fold. So for now, Soul Hat remains a trio, with original members Brian Walsh (bass) and Barry "Frosty" Smith (drums) joining McKinney to rekindle the heady karma of old. At 9:30 p.m. Friday, July 18, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $10. Damon Bramblett opens. 869-COOL. (Hobart Rowland)

George Benson -- George Benson was still playing small clubs in Houston around the time of his 1976 Grammy-winning breakthrough release Breezin'. That classic effort, which maximized the commercial impact of his smooth, gospel-tinged vocalizing and tastefully clever guitar work, eventually went platinum, knocking him out of the smaller venues and into the theaters and arenas. And while Benson has never been able to duplicate the success of Breezin', his phenomenal command of his instrument has kept him in the forefront of jazz. The latest in a long line of versatile entertainer/ technicians that includes Wes Montgomery and Nat "King" Cole, Benson is the essence of jazz guitar as we know it today -- and he's no slouch as a singer, either. At 8 p.m. Saturday, July 19, at the Arena Theatre, 7324 Southwest Freeway. Tickets are $40. Dianne Reeves opens. 988-1020. (Mark Towns

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