Ace, Jack & King; Eli Cook; Self-released

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Eli Cook picked up a guitar at 14, formed his first electric trio at 16 and recorded his first record, Moonshine Mojo, at 18. At 20 he opened for blues legends B.B. King and Johnny Winter. With that trajectory he should be a worldwide blues champion by now, jetting into town to grace us with a rare and much-hyped appearance at JPJ. But the music business doesn’t catapult stars like it used to, and embracing the blues doesn’t pay off as much as it did in 1969. That’s when Winter, at Cook’s current age of 25, wooed an unprecedented $600,000 advance out of CBS Records with his version of King’s “It’s My Own Fault.”

Eli Cook’s latest album is split nearly even between covers (from Skip James to Nick Drake) and originals. Catch him and others at The Jefferson Theater on Saturday, June 25, playing the songs of Johnny Cash.

This reality doesn’t seem to worry Cook, and in fact it’s probably been the best environment for his music. The blues is, after all, music of searching and wanting. Cook has explored the genre quite a bit, opting for classic acoustic blues on Miss Blues’ Child, metal blues on ElectricHolyFireWater, and a combination of blues, R&B and pop on Static in the Blood. It’s as if he has worked his way through a 12-bar progression of different styles, chugging along on one before moving to the next.

With his new record Ace, Jack & King, though, Cook puts all of the cards on the table. Split almost evenly between originals and covers, the album follows him from his quietest to loudest, from the cleanest acoustic notes to the thickest distortion, and from the most upbeat songs to the most downtrodden. He takes on Skip James’ “Catfish Blues” and “Crow Jane,” giving the former an updated swagger and the latter a fuzzy electric churn. He also interprets Charles Brown’s West Coast blues standard “Driftin’ Blues,” offering a slow burning, grungy take on the much-covered tune. He delves into Western Swing with “Cocaine Blues,” which features the album’s simplest orchestration—just vocals and guitar—as well as production that makes it sound like it was lifted from an old 78 rpm record.

Cook’s most unexpected turn, though, is Nick Drake’s “Black Eyed Dog,” a beautiful but devastating song about depression, and one of the last that English singer recorded before succumbing to it. Wisely bypassing the impossible task of replicating Drake’s brittle and moving delivery, Cook injects his version with more vigorous notes, giving it its own subtlety and strength.

Backing away from such a bleak moment, Cook follows “Black Eyed Dog” with one of his straightest and steadiest originals, the distortion-heavy “Death Rattle (slight return)”, singing, “Found salvation, but we just don’t mix.” But he isn’t always so dark. “Better Man” is a foot-stomper about finding the strength to do the right thing, and “Please, Please” is a warm love ballad. His other originals run the gamut from Zeppelin riffs to country twang and even acoustic pop hooks, proving that, whatever way you shake it, Cook has not only phenomenal six-string skills, but also some versatile songwriting chops. Ace, Jack & King is a good hand, and it’s exciting to see Cook go all in.

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