Downtown Tucson was absolutely rocked last month when it was visited by one of the most dynamic bands working today. The Rialto Theatre played host The Marcus King Band on April 30, and they did not disappoint. The up-and-coming group put on a display of pristine musicianship and pure showmanship. It was a music lover’s paradise. The show left a capacity audience captivated and duly satisfied all prerequisite rock requirements including sizzling guitar solos, classic covers and powerful vocals. But this was so much more than a good ole’ fashion rock concert. This was a showcase for a supremely talented band featuring a burgeoning virtuoso on his way to superstardom.
The Marcus King Band has yet to receive universal endorsement. However, in September of 2019, the band performed at the Crossroads Guitar Festival as invited guests of Eric Clapton. That is really all the endorsement they need. Self-described as “psychedelic southern rock”, the powerhouse group first formed in Greenville, South Carolina in 2013. King has been playing guitar since age of three or four and professionally since the age of 11. Almost immediately the label of “Prodigy” was attached to Marcus. He has been trying to shake the label ever since. It would be nice “to be accepted solely for your merit” he states, “and not because you’re doing good for a certain age”. The talented troubadour is still only 26, but he possesses the weathered wail of a pure bluesman and skilled fingers of a seasoned picker.
Marcus and his band swung through the Old Pueblo in September of 2018, but they have ascended new heights since then. Once a rough and blaring regional group, this extremely skilled conglomerate of righteous musicians now draws comparisons to the revered Allman Brothers Band. The ensemble consists of King, drummer Jack Ryan, bass player Stephen Campbell, trumpeter/trombonist Justin Johnson, and sax/steel guitarist Dean Mitchell. The current configuration includes brass elements as well as a second guitarist in the form of Drew Smithers (on loan from Bishop Gunn). This is a well-oiled music machine but make no mistake, this is Marcus King’s band, and he is the one fans have paid to see.
King is a unique concoction of rare ability, exceptional skill and eclectic influence. His voice goes down like finely aged gasoline and registers somewhere between James Brown and Janis Joplin. His aptitude on the guitar has been the stuff of legend since he turned professional at the age of 11. In 2020, Marcus made a big leap in his career when he teamed up with Dan Auerbach (of Black Keys fame). Auerbach produced King’s solo debut album, “El Dorado”. The effort garnered a GRAMMY® Award nomination in the category of “Best Americana Album”. The pair’s second collaboration, “Young Blood”, is due out in August. The current tour, called simply “Live in 2022”, is in support of the upcoming album. For those of us in attendance, we were certainly thankful for the structural integrity of the venue – King nearly blew the roof off the place.
Fans were greeted by opening act Hannah Wicklund, a blossoming wunderkind in her own right. After an impressive set from Wicklund, the headliner and his band hit the stage. Immediately the theatre was filled with the blistering licks that Marcus is known for. His soulful howl was in top form and somehow seems stronger than on his recordings. It is amazing just how forceful his voice is live. The tour will stretch into 2023 and take the band all over the globe. The rest of the music world will soon discover what Tucson already knows; Marcus King is a star on the rise.
The setlist consisted largely of new material but there were plenty of fan favorites sprinkled in. Marcus’ ballads sparked some of the biggest reaction on the night. “Beautiful Stranger” and “One Day She’s Here”, both off the “El Dorado” album, were particularly well received. Nearly every tune was reinforced by King’s blazing solos. Up close, his guitar style appears effortless but never missing a note. His depth of influence shines as he shifts seamlessly between genres. An unexpected highlight was Marcus’ breathtaking version of Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman”. For the encore, King mesmerized the crowd with the poignant “Goodbye Carolina”. It was followed sharply by his 2020 hit, “The Well”. The night ended with a rousing cover of the 1977 Heart classic “Barracuda”, with Hannah Wicklund returning to assume lead vocal duties.
For the attending rockers, it felt as though the building was not big enough for the music of Marcus King. No worry – he will be playing a bigger venue the next time he is in town. As a 4th generation musician, Marcus was taught never to cheat the audience. Each performance is a personal endeavor to him, and the crowd feels it. King states, “You’ve got folks who work all week and spend their hard-earned money just to come see us. They’re the backbone of America. It’s a real blessing”. The gifted bandleader left the audience feeling many things, but cheated was not one of them.