Why I must see B.B. King

20:06, Mar 20 2011

Last week I looked at the cancellation of the Grassroots Festival. One of the best things to come out of that cancellation - for me anyway - is the announcement that B.B. King will still perform in Auckland. He will be joined by Ruthie Foster (also from the proposed Grassroots bill).

I first mentioned B.B. King here at Blog on the Tracks back on October 22, 2007 - it was in fact just the 21st post. Since then I've mentioned him peripherally - I've given a few shoutouts to my favourite B.B. King album. But, overall, the 948 posts since that first mention have passed by without really looking at B.B. King.

Here's that initial mention of B.B. King. I was, ostensibly, mocking a rather lazy live DVD that had been cobbled together to flog. Viewing that concert had made me think back to what really made me fall in love with B.B. King's music. I was, once, a U2 fan (we all make mistakes). So When Love Comes to Town did have an impact - I knew who B.B. King was but I didn't really see the fuss. I was, if this excuses that, about 11 years old.

I liked The Thrill Is Gone (I'm not sure how you could not). I liked a few other things I'd heard - but I didn't really get it.

That changed, as I mentioned in the post I linked to above, when I saw the film When We Were Kings. A great documentary, it shows James Brown and B.B. King in action as part of the music/boxing event in Africa in 1974, the main event being Muhammad Ali fighting George Foreman. The concert footage of King was electric - I loved it.

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I've never looked back.

There are some truly average - in fact, some truly dire - B.B. King records but the best stuff is amazing. This version of How Blue Can You Get still gives me chills; still makes the hairs on my arms stand up and bristle when B.B. barks out the line, "I gave you seven children and now you wanna give them back!" It's right at that point - it's where the vocal line and the drum fill meet, where the horn parp feeds back in with the crowd cheering around it - that's the point where I feel the bristle. But of course the guitar solo that introduces the song is part of it and B.B. King's entire vocal performance is part of it - especially where he spits back to himself, assuming the female character's voice, "but I want a Cadillac!"

I can tell you right now - and I mean it - that this particular performance of this particular song by B.B. King (recorded and released 40 years ago) is the reason I need to see him when he plays Auckland during Easter of this year.

That version of that song is my B.B. King pinnacle. There are other performances I love, there are other songs I dig, but that's the thing I always think of when I think of the King; it's the part of the Cook County Jail album (my favourite B.B. King album) I always look forward to - I anticipate that moment in that song every time now and I still feel that same rush, that same push and pull. It is visceral, it is vibrant, it is my physical (and emotional) reaction to an emotional (and physical) piece of music.

Sometime after seeing When We Were Kings I started to collect a few more B.B. King albums - I had some cheap tape and CD compilations but I hunted out Live at the Regal (for most this is the B.B. King album - I love it, but it still, only just, comes second to Cook County Jail for me). I picked up this four CD box-set. I read his autobiography. I was hooked on the collaboration album with Bobby "Blue" Bland.

I know that, at 85, it is unrealistic for B.B King to play How Blue Can You Get as he did when he was 45. It's impossible. I know that he cannot stand. He has to sit through the gig. To me it's remarkable that at 85 he is still touring - particularly this far from his home. Let's be honest - it's surely remarkable to be alive at 85.

I am realistic about how B.B. King might sound these days, but I've seen enough (recent) footage to know that he still has that touch; that being the thing that finally made me realise the B.B. King magic. His touch. His feel, his tone. Exquisite. And, for him as a guitarist who works as a lead player only, rarely playing when singing, it is about what he chooses to play and what he chooses to not play.

It's important to mention - though I've surely prefaced it with my explanation of what I love about How Blue Can You Get - that B.B. King is an incredible singer. Those prison performances and the footage caught for When We Were Kings and Soul Power show him singing a good two foot back from the microphone - all power, all emotion.

Recently I managed to find a DVD copy of B.B. King and Friends, a concert video that I watched a lot when I was younger. It's a magic show - it introduced me to Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughan and featured names now so easy to mock (Eric Clapton, Phil Collins) back when their playing was still vital - or at least interesting.

It was actually my real introduction to the magic of B.B. King, long before I saw When We Were Kings. It's been great reconnecting with these performances - the concert also features this great duet between Dr. John and Etta James, which I know I have mentioned before.

So I'm excited about seeing B.B King. I'm hoping to interview him too - though I suspect I will lose out to Auckland's newspaper since it's an Auckland gig.

Tell me - are you going to see B.B. King? Or would you like to? Have you seen him before? What's your favourite album or performance/s? Do you have key tracks or key moments-within-tracks?

And would you like to read a B.B. King interview here? What would you like me to ask him? What would you want to hear about?

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