There are few performers today who could appear on stage in a multi-colored smoking jacket, bowtie and American-flag-print guitar strap and expect to be taken seriously. But, such is the presence of “The King of Blues,” and an outfit sure to make Queer Eye fans cringe did nothing but accentuate the awesome power of the voice and musicianship of one truly worthy of the title King.
It is safe to say that the older members of the audience, the ones who had paid over $80 to see Riley “B.B.” King, knew what they were in for. For many, it was their third or fourth viewing of the King. For the younger members of the audience lucky enough to have a first-time viewing of B.B. King, however, any expectations of an old and tired bluesman were thoroughly blown away by a night of highly energized and intricate blues.
Based on the continuing careers of rock and roll greats such as Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger and The Who, it would be easy to expect the 79-year-old King to succumb to the stereotype of the legendary, but decrepit musician. One could easily envision a man stumbling through rearranged classics and mediocre new material in a voice strangled by years of substance abuse. Last night, King made it clear he has no intention of dedicating his career’s later years to weakness.
After an extended instrumental introduction by his eight-piece backup group, King gracefully descended onto the stage. Putting his custom guitar, affectionately labeled “Lucille,” on his lap, King took to his center-stage throne. The fact that King remained seated did nothing to mute the energy of the mature and passionate sounds that echoed throughout the performance.
The sounds of King’s guitar as well as the seasoned horns, drums, keyboards and bass were more than enough to affirm the legitimacy of King’s near-deity status in the musical world. The backup crew did a very credible, and at times impressive, job of keeping up with the blues behemoth, but King made certain, with his lively delivery of jokes and riffs, that all eyes remained steadfastly on him.
While King’s graceful playing and resonant voice will always be the highlight of his performances, the most surprising aspect of his presence was his rejection of the arrogance typical of acts of his status. Throughout the show, King playfully cracked jokes about his age, his music and his audience. The audience responded to this banter, as well as a number of physical antics including kissing the microphone, and hoisting a glass of beer to the audience before downing it in one gulp, with continuously increasing applause and excitement.
He had the audience clapping and singing along to a quickly improvised jam before launching into his classic, “When Love Comes to Town,” first made popular by its inclusion on U2’s 1988 release, “Rattle and Hum.” The opening licks of this song were enough to clear away any lingering doubt that the gracious and heartfelt sounds of King’s patented guitar have hardly deteriorated since his career was born in the studios of Memphis. One look at the sometimes exaggerated — but always authentic — expressions on King’s face as the notes fly effortlessly and beautifully from his guitar shows that, to him, music and life are one.
As King concluded his set, he laughingly entreated his enthused crowd, “May I come back again someday?” So thoroughly had he instilled in the fortunate spectators a portrait of a man, prolific and brilliant, thoroughly in love with his audience and his world, no one could do anything but stand and shout their approval.