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.
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.