B.B. King: Great Guitarist, Lousy Comedian

B.B. King
B.B. King's, NY
Sometimes, the decision whether to go to a concert is a checklist thing: "B.B. King is 87 years old, has diabetes, and already played a 'farewell tour' six years ago; I have never been to a B.B. King concert; ergo, I should go to this one." Not that there aren't other factors. For instance, is he still singing and playing well? The man has made more live albums than many artists have made total albums, so there's relatively recent evidence -- one of them came out this year -- saying yes. Of course, that album's also plagued by too many guests and not enough B.B., so that was a worry, but fortunately there were no guests at this show, just B.B. and his ace band.

Well, there was an opening act, Alexis P. Suter. He and his band opened with a version of "John the Revelator" that had me thinking of Blueshammer, and every time they returned to the blues, I hated them. Fortunately, things were a little better, though never actually distinctive, during the soul numbers that made up the bulk of their set, and the guitarist at least was good.

I would have rather listened to a whole set by King's backing band, who played for about twenty minutes (two instrumentals) before King appeared. I tried to get all their names from their introduction, but couldn't confirm them online, so forgive any spelling errors:

keyboards: Ernest van Trese
bass: Reggie Richards
drums: Tony Coleman
sax: Walter King (B.B.'s cousin)
trumpet: Stanley Abernathy
guitar: Charlie Damers
bandleader/flugelhorn: James Bolin
They kicked off with a hot soul-funk instrumental that had more than a little jazz in it, then played a blues that heavily featured the guitarist. Everybody got at least one solo across the two tunes; they were all impressive, though Bolin was a little less imaginative in his improvising than the rest.

Then B.B. King came out to a super-uptempo vamp, sat his vast bulk down on a chair front-and-center, and joined in with a long solo that, played slowly, went against the grain of the backing in a brilliantly tension-building fashion. After that came the band intro detailed above. A little less comedy would have been appreciated, by me at least. I would find myself feeling that way more than once on this night.

The first performance of the actual set was the classic "I Need You So." Backed by keyboard strings, King sang its pleading words plaintively. Mood gears shifted drastically with the even more classic "Every Day I Have the Blues," slower than it used to be, King starting it off with a solo, followed by Damers soloing, then bass, then drums, then King again over the full band. It was ecstatic, the sort of iconic performance one hopes to hear at a concert such as this even though one dares not expect it of a sick 87-year-old man. And then another classic, "Key to the Highway," a slow blues on which King played with a little more grit in his tone. He was still singing well, but somewhat hammily, but there were plenty of B.B. guitar solos, so it didn't matter.

Have I used the word "classic" too much? Well, then came another, "Rock Me Baby," and Damers soloed a bit in King's style, then switched to the Chicago style. After a thumb-pop bass solo and a drum solo, King played over the whole band, then over the rhythm section when the horns dropped out, and he sounded exactly, gloriously, like himself on his long solo.

Next up, a slow blues I didn't recognize, that prominently featured the phrase "all the way" in the lyrics, but which primarily functioned as another platform for King's inimitable playing, with two B.B. solos bookending a trumpet solo.

And that, though I did not know it at the time, ended the best portion of the show. Next on the set list, alas, was the corniest moment of the show, an interminable version of "You Are My Sunshine" that not only featured more of King's feeble attempts at comedy (consisting primarily of threats to "cut" the drummer), but also multiple sing-alongs.

King then took a request from the audience, leading to a respite from the set's sudden downhill slide as he sang and played "Night Life" with a wistfulness and spontaneity that made it profoundly touching.

I was hoping there would be more spontaneity when he announced, "Alright, we gonna invent one now," and for a while the resulting medium shuffle was fun, but then came a "Jingle Bells" quote, which slid into "Merry Christmas, Baby," which quickly devolved into more jokes, plus flirting with female staff and audience members, and more "Jingle Bells" quotes (always the melody on guitar). I then got excited when "The Thrill Is Gone" appeared next, more hard-edged than the classic studio recording that had been the first B.B. King song I heard. Alas, it too eventually slipped into a rhythm section groove over which King yakked and jived. At some point, the great Bernard Purdie took over on the drums, though there wasn't that much difference. "The Thrill Is Gone" reappeared when he'd exhausted his supply of broad witticisms, and "Merry Christmas, Baby" was reprised to bring the set to a close after an hour and 25 minutes.

Of that time, at least a third had been filler (to put it in the best possible light; at times, frankly, it was excruciating), but nonetheless I was happy. It's not as though I didn't have some warning from his many concert albums that he would talk more than I wanted (although based on this show, I'm guessing that the worst of those albums' respective evenings were edited out). And when he did play and sing, it put me in the presence of his unique brand of greatness, and that is worth suffering through the dead spots. - Steve Holtje


Photo above, from this show, is by Dino Perrucci.

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. His song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.