Paul Wilson: The Ultra Sad Finale of Blues Legend B.B. King

BB-King-Homecoming-3Last night I attended the Peter Frampton Guitar Circus at the Kauffman Center

I’ll have a review of the complete show later today, but I’ve been conflicted over the performance of B.B. King, pretty much from the moment he took stage. In short, I was shocked.

Maybe I should have properly adjusted my expectations beforehand.

After all, B.B. is just days shy of his 88th birthday and he probably doesn’t need to do this anymore, yet but plays over 200 shows a year. Because, in his words, “The thrill isn’t gone yet.”

Desiderius Erasmus penned a quote that in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. That applied to last night, sitting in the presence of the great and legendary B.B. King. We are all blind by comparison to what he had done in the world of music, but at 87, King’s not going to be what he once was.

Still I couldn’t escape how sad and pathetic King’s performance was.

After an amazing set by Sonny Landreth, one by one, seven men – all in suits or tuxes in the BB King Blues Band – took to the stage. The last to appear was an expressionless 6’3” man ceremoniously carrying BB’s guitar, Lucille, cradled like a baby. It rested on a white towel in his arms and as he gently placed it on its stand, he stood, looked at it reverently, then turned and walked away.

I’ve gotta tell you, the dude looked like one of Louis Farrakhan’s body guards.

Next the band played like two and a half songs – and don’t get me wrong, it was brilliant – until halfway through the third song they introduced the man who needs no introduction as King was slowly escorted from behind the left rear corner of the stage by the man who’d placed Lucille on the stand.

I was shocked at the weight King’s lost and the uncertainty of his pace.

After a two minute standing O from an adoring crowd, King made his way to his chair at the front of the stage and threw 15 or 20 guitar picks to the fans in the front rows. Kinda like Santa throwing candy to kids. And just when you thought maybe King was out of picks, back into his tux pocket he dove and out came another fist full.

From there it became a mixture of sad and happy.

peter-frampton-and-bb-kingSong progression didn’t matter and lyrics were unimportant.

King was there to visit, talk with the crowd and poke fun at his band. The music was clearly secondary.

King sang, maybe, a half dozen lines tops from “I Need You So,” then pointed to his guitar player and complimented him on how good he was and said he had to stop him sometimes because he was making BB look bad. Then using a finger across his throat for the instruction, King gave his guitar player the signal when he wanted him to stop.

Amazingly when King did sing, his voice was strong, clear and firmly on pitch.

However those times were few.

Then completely out of left field, King led the crowd in a rambling sing-along version of “You Are My Sunshine.”

And then – suddenly – the beginning notes to King classic, “The Thrill is Gone” began. Six or eight lines were all that King delivered from the song, but deliver them he did.

A tech brought a second chair from stage left, placing it next to BB.  Then King pointed off stage and motioned with his pointer finger for someone to come. It was none other than Peter Frampton coming to join his friend on stage (BB was the first to accept the invitation to join Frampton’s Guitar Circus tour).

Next The Thrill is Gone turned into a 20 minute rambling jam session as BB simply smiled, played a riff from time to time, but largely just took in his surroundings.

On multiple occasions King would just point to Frampton and say, “Just play something,” “Do more of that,” “Isn’t this guy good?”

Finally it was time to close King’s set, which started what became a 10 minute long goodbye.

His guard appeared again, with no expression whatsoever, fedora in his hand and a long jacket neatly draped over his arm. BB asked the crowd, “Let’s do this again, sometime, ok?” Then started with more goodbyes, God bless yous, thanks for comings, and final farewells.

King gave no sign of being in any hurry to leave the stage.

This was a man, a legend, who knew with abject certainty he wouldn’t be coming this way again.

King got his first big break in 1948. In 1956 he played 342 one-night stands. This was 2013 and we were getting our final moments with the King to say our goodbyes and make our peace.

It was a heartbreaking sight as two assistants came and eased King up from his chair.

The crowd stayed on its feet in applause as King threw yet another 20 or so picks to the crowd and then gold beaded necklaces as each assistant supplied him with more as the long goodbye continued.

I talked to several people around me and it struck us all as odd that less than 30 lines were sung in his entire set, yet everyone was mesmerized and grateful they’d spent the evening with B.B. King.

I saw grown men wiping away tears as King disappeared behind the curtain.

We came for a concert; King came for a visit with his friends and fans.

We all left well fed.

I’m sad to say, we won’t see this again. The King is coming to the end of his long reign.

Long live the King.



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21 Responses to Paul Wilson: The Ultra Sad Finale of Blues Legend B.B. King

  1. KC Dude says:

    Overheard in the hallway, one patron last night went up to the ushers at the end of BB’s intermission and said, “well THAT was a train wreck.”

    • paulwilsonkc says:

      KC Dude, therein lies my conflict. It was an epic event for someone like me who had not seen him. He’s a must see. While I would have liked to have seen the BB of 15 or 20 years ago, I didn’t and can’t.

      As a result, last night was a really disjointed reality for me. It was good, and, it was a train wreck. I guess it defines “juxtaposition”.

      Here was my summation in my own head. I really meant what I said. I think I came for a concert, he came for a visit. I’ve seen him live; I know what he’s done in his career. Somewhere, those two met and the circle is complete.

      Offsetting the sad image of it all, I think he’s happy. Or at least I sure hope he is. I think he’s wrapping up his career in shows like last night. Somewhere in his mind I’m hoping this is all good for him. He takes the stage with lifelong friends. He sits in front of sold out houses where he gets multiple standing ovations for just walking on stage.

      He clearly adores his fans on what seems like a totally sincere level and he sure loves his band.

      You hate to walk away from a show like last night and write a review that says, “Well THAT was a train wreck”, when it’s an icon of the entire music world. So I took it all into consideration, on balance, and that’s what I walked away with, it was great and it was terrible. It was sad and it was happy.

      Maybe I should be an economist; “the financial sky is falling, we are all going to DIE…. but on the OTHER hand………”

      • Toad says:

        If you had done your homework then you wouldn’t have been so shocked about the performance. BB has been performing like this for quite awhile. Just be thankful you witnessed him. To hear somebody call his act a train wreck is really obnoxious and fucking small.

        • paulwilsonkc says:

          Toad, I’m rarely found without my homework done front to back. There’s a difference in seeing an autopsy done on CSI and standing next to the table witnessing it in person; I’ve done both. Doing your homework on what an autopsy involves doesn’t prepare you well for the reality of the event.
          Same story here. Prior to the show I’d even read how frustrated Frampton gets trying to get BB to play along with him. If you were there I can see how someone could say that, as one commenter did. It was sad in many ways but I’m glad I got to see it. The description the commenter said he heard didn’t make the person saying it small or obnoxious, just means they had a differing opinion from yours. That’s all.

  2. Wow, 88 and still kicking it; plus he has diabetes. The secret to longevity right there: Do what makes you happy. Eat that, Mick and Keith (although they’re on the same path).

    • paulwilsonkc says:

      He’s kicking it all right; I think it’s just on HIS terms now. He’s just chillin, enjoying the music, “conversating” and hanging out with his friends. It’s no longer 90 minutes of Lucille and hard core blues, its more in the style of the Little River Bands rendition of, “Reminiscing.” And, as I said, I think it’s his own, personal farewell to fans of many generations. Still something I wouldn’t have missed.

  3. kansas karl says:

    In 1974 or 5 Riley played with the Wichita Symphony, that was the first of a half dozen times I have been blessed with this man’s talent. Last time for me was a good bye, I missed Glen Campbell and that was a mistake, these folks have added a sound trak like no other generation of musicians.

    Sonny Landreth’s playing during the encore was inspired to say the least, at one point all the players were watching him blister the paint off that Stratocaster.

    As I sat down I got a good laugh, the management at the Kaufman had a little announcement streaming “to refrain from hoots, whistling, or catcalls during tonight performance” or something to that effect. Really they have no clue who they invited into their palace of culture, can’t wait till Vince Gill shows up with the raw honky tonk sound of Buck Owen’s Bakersfield.

    • paulwilsonkc says:

      Great observation, Karl.
      I think, and to some point rightfully so, The Kauffman is pretty much in shock at the dress code of some recent attendees. Opening year I had season tickets, 3rd row center for the ballet. That’s a pretty dressed up event. I’ve seen a ton of performances there, all business casual at the very least.
      Carol Burnett’s show you had women coming in wearing vintage Mackie gowns, clones to what she wore on the show. Spin the hands up to the Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull) TAAB2 tour, guys showed up fresh off the riding mower in dirty cargo shorts and NASCAR t shirts!
      Then, last night, it was more of a mix but still subpar for the Kauffman.
      I can only imagine the Skoal Bandit droppings that will be left on the floor after they clean house from Vince.

  4. harley says:

    these artists are a strange crew. Some are at home on the road and don’t
    know any other lifestyle besides the travelling/the hotels/the partys/
    the music and the shows. For the stones…they live for touring and they
    just can’t make it sitting at home….its been their life for decades and they
    know other type of life.
    Probably BB was showing the effects of diabetes…which when you’re
    on the road has a tough regimen to follow.
    From the pic It looks like he’s tired and after 300 plus nights on the
    road his entire life …..have played and probably seen a lot of tough things
    in his life…..he’s probably just trying to slow it down abit.
    But I saw him in st. Louis at the fox theaatre probably 6 years ago..
    incredible playing…..was at top of his game.
    But along with Lucille….he’ll probably just keep touring til the end.
    Great talent that we may never see again…..wish him safe passage.

  5. Super Dave says:

    I saw B.B. King about 15 years ago and was a great show. but as with us all we age. I find it hard to go to concerts such as this because while it is good to see them you as well see what you don’t want to see. I saw him while he was still awesome, I have seen him when he really blew you off your feet. I want those shows to be the ones I remember, not the sad last ones.

  6. KCMonarch says:

    “I’ve gotta tell you, the dude looked like one of Louis Farrakhan’s body guards.”

    Translation: he was African American and his presence made Paul a little uneasy.

    • paulwilsonkc says:

      Hardly, Monarch. Ever see Louie’s dudes who stand behind him when he talks? They are 6’4″, $1500 suits, impeccably styled, no expression. That was the analogy, nothing more than that.

  7. mike t. says:

    i’ve always regretted not seeing BB King on one of his many visits to KC, esp the starlight shows. but i knew what kind of show he puts on these days and just didn’t think i wanted to see him like that.

    and like kansas karl, i missed going to one of glen campbell’s shows, the one here at the uptown and the one down in wichita at the orpheum. his new (last) cd was excellent.

    i did get lucky once tho’ and was able to catch Ray Charles at the music hall several years back. awesome.

  8. hernia kristofferson says:

    Reminds me of my trip to see Chuck Berry earlier this year. I was thrilled to finally see him, but the show was ROUGH. Still glad I went!

  9. PB says:

    I could see where you’re coming from Paul in never having seen BB before, you and some of the others in attendance probably got a little more out of his performance than I did. Like Toad said earlier though, I knew what to expect and was actually somewhat disappointed to see that he was going to be a part of this KC appearance of the Circus. I was totally content with 2005 being my BB swan song of sorts as he still had at least something left back then, so seeing him as a mere shell of himself the other night had a negative affect on me as I was pretty much forced into it by the tour scheduling. Although I still try to treat him with some deserved reverence, I still have a hard time making excuses for an old man that is reluctant to scale back on his touring and is still charging a pretty penny for his performances. For the sake of him AND his audience, I wish he would just cherry-pick his performances and thus, he really shouldn’t touch a stage more than 10-15 times a year at this point.

  10. Irishguy says:

    Paul, I did have the opportunity to see B.B. when he was on top. Amazing.

    Then a couple of years ago, he blew through town with Buddy Guy. I left that rather expensive gig with the same feeling of utter sadness. About the only analogy I can come up with, it was like watching Willie Mays in an old-timer’s game, except that doesn’t quite get it either. B.B. unfortunately isn’t even a shell of himself any more.

    The fact that he was on this bill kept me away. I just couldn’t bear to see him again at this stage of his life. And I don’t blame anyone for expecting B.B. King when B.B. King is on the bill then thinking it was a “train wreck.”

    But apparently, the name can still sell tickets. And that’s the sad part. Instead of retiring gracefully and on the fortune he must have certainly have earned, there is still a buck to be made by lots of people off the name B.B. King, his true fans be damned.

  11. Hearne says:

    One of my very first live concerts was BB King at the University of Arizona my freshman year. Top notch show and he was touring on the Live at the Cook County Jail album Shi h broke his hit “the thrill is gone.”

    All of that said, I always thot he was a little weak (and white) compared to grittier blues stars like…wait for it…Albert King

    • Irishguy says:

      Well, actually, Hearne. “The Thrill Is Gone” came off B.B.’s 1969 “Completely Well” album. It already was a big hit when he played it “Live in Cook County Jail” in 1971 — and in every concert since 1969.

  12. newbaum turk says:

    Kind of sounds like the David Allen Coe show at Knuckleheads a couple years back. Worst show I’ve ever seen, with the exception of Hank Jr. at Sandstone in 1991 when he was way too drunk to play. But in Hanks defense, he was too drunk to play. DAC is just too old and out of it to still be playing.

  13. Ray says:

    I missed Elvis’s last KC show prior to his death and even though he was only a carricature of himself by then (c. 1976 at Kemper) I still kick myself for missing my chance. By the way, had the chance to meet BB after I saw him c. 1993 and he came to the green room backstage and brought a pile of 11×8 b&w glossies and sign one as well as posed for individual photos with each person in our party including spouses and friends who just happened to attend with us..great guy.. 88? Damn he’s looking frail but alive and well.. Even if he’s just reminiscing anymore..

  14. PB says:

    Nice story, Ray. I can also attest that BB is one of the good ones as far as how he carries himself as a celebrity. I recall after my last time seeing him (prior to last Sunday) in ’05 at Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival in Dallas, where my wife and I were lucky enough to have backstage passes to the entire event and following his performance at the Cotton Bowl, he made a point of gently strolling, perhaps 30 yards or so, over to the backstage hospitality area and signing around 25-30 autographs before getting on his tour bus. He didn’t just sign either, he visited with each and every person and had a kind word for us all, especially the ladies like my wife. A true gentleman in every way.

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