B. B. King in Denver
April 19, 2010
B. B. King is the last of the authentic Delta bluesmen. That group includes legends like Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. King is the real deal. He was born in the Delta and grew up on the plantations, doing farm work. He logged many a mile guiding a plow behind a mule. Later, he drove tractors on endless rounds back and forth across the Mississippi cotton fields. Even then he was known as a hard worker and his employer arranged for a draft deferment during World War II so he could help the war effort by keeping America's agricultural production at full tilt.
After the war ended, he traveled to Memphis and, with the help of his cousin, Bukka White, a minor blues star in his own right, he started playing around town, landed his own radio show and by 1950, had his first hit record. He took the blues structure developed by his slightly older blues compatriots, included their emotional intensity and incorporated elements of jazz and the styles of players like Charlie Christian and T-Bone Walker and came up with a unique and readily identifiable guitar sound.
He also incorporated the work ethic from his days down on the farm and for years played over 250 concerts every year (including, remarkably, 346 one night stands in 1956). Now, at 84, he still tours relentlessly, dialing back his annual concert total only slightly. About the same time he played Denver on Monday, it was announced that he'll be back in August to play Red Rocks with Buddy Guyand Al Green.
Monday night, King brought his eight piece band that churned out state of the art blues for a good two hours. The band featured a four piece horn section, bass, drums, guitar and keyboards. The band served to carry the show for a substantial part of the evening. They started with not one, but two instrumentals before King came on stage. At that point, King launched into a lengthy introduction of all the band members. By the time King sang his first song, the show was a half hour old.
King's knees gave out several years ago and although he makes his way to center stage under his own power, he now sits down for his concerts. His voice sounds great. He still sings with power, emotion and authority. The voice has proven to be the weak link in many an aging vocalist, but King has dodged that bullet and continues to belt out the blues in his own unique style. He spent the evening with Lucille, his guitar, on his lap, but played her only occasionally. His guitar playing ability seems to have fallen off somewhat over the last few years. A key element of his guitar sound is the left handed vibrato which is much more subdued and infrequent than it used to be. Whereas he formerly played fluid and extended single note lines, he now tends to use more chords.
B. B. King has always been a bit of a storyteller on stage. His classic album, Live at the Regal, recorded in 1964, has King dispensing advice to young lovers and generally chatting with the audience about love, both lost and won. At his recent Denver show, King delivered two extended monologs musing on a vast array of topics including the Haitian earthquake, the Chilean earthquake, the Icelandic volcano, the state of popular music and his recent and upcoming tours among many other topics. He had just returned from a tour of South America and had, therefore heard many stories about the recent earthquake in Chile. He compared the relative beauty of women in Brazil to women in America. (American women won.) He spoke of how he thought he had toured Europe for the last time about a year ago, but how the promoters had offered him so much money to go back, he was now planning another visit. He marveled about how it used to take weeks to sail on a ship to Europe and now it is a trip of just a few hours in a jet. He spoke of how he flew the Concord one time and demonstrated with his hand, how the nose of that jet would drop to act as a brake when decelerating from supersonic speeds.
At one point, he expressed his dismay at some of the current music that is disrespectful of women. He told us that he didn't find any musician completely objectionable and he didn't know of any musicians whose music he liked completely. But the insults of women he found particularly disagreeable. So he said he would perform a song for all the ladies. It turned out to be "You Are My Sunshine." Thankfully, he sang the abridged version. Then, he turned to the fellas and launched into a discussion of Viagra and Cialis. He didn't admit to any personal acquaintance with those drugs, but he certainly painted them in a favorable light. He then sang a brief song about them (the "Viagra Blues"? (Pun intended)). He followed that up with some tips for the guys on ways to seduce a lady. He followed that, in turn, with "Rock Me Baby." What had seemed at times to be aimless ramblings suddenly came together with a coherent theme.
During the extended monologs, the band quietly laid down a blues jam. Some in the crowd became restless with the length of the pontificating that was turning into a significant part of the concert. Hecklers, pining for King's woman, occasionally called out "Lucille!" As the second monolog passed the half hour mark, it suddenly became clear, he was pacing himself. Of course! This is how you play well over 100 concerts a year in your mid 80s and still maintain a strong singing voice.
The last tune of the evening was King's biggest hit "The Thrill is Gone." Based on the lengthy discussions and the relative lack of blues playing, it may be that the new-found apathy described in the song now applied to King's attitude toward the blues rather than a woman.
Set List: Two opening instrumentals; Band intro; I Need You So; Let the Good Times Roll; I'm a Bluesman; So Excited; Everyday I Have the Blues; Key to the Highway; Long monolog; You Are My Sunshine (briefly); Viagra Blues; Rock Be Baby (briefly); The Thrill is Gone.