Seeing B.B. King, live

00:21, Apr 26 2011

We were three rows from the front on Sunday night at the Civic. Three rows from the front at the B.B. King concert. The band was astonishingly good - the brilliance of the ride cymbal and the crisp crashes, two trumpets and two saxophones, keys, guitar, bass. All in sharp suits. Three rows from the front - and it was impossible not to fall in love with this band the moment the trumpeter's hand dropped and the first kick of bass drum and hair-trigger snare set things off.

Then B.B. King walked on to a standing ovation. I had tears in my eyes. B.B. King - the man who has meant so much to me and, presumably, to many of the others in attendance. Beyond that, the man who has meant so much to Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan and to so many other players who have made their mark on the guitar, on a version of the blues, on pop-culture at some point.

Just to see B.B. King at 85 was enough. Just to see this great, happy man ready to perform. That was the reason for the road-trip, that was the explanation for the tears - just seeing him was enough. I had driven five hours to pay my respects - to see one of my musical heroes.

It was lovely. It was sad. It was heartbreaking, almost. But it was warm and real.

B.B. King sat at the front of the stage and took his time to introduce his band, to introduce four of his daughters (who were in the audience). He mumbled and meandered - some of what he said was very funny. Some of what he said seemed to get lost, either because he half-spoke into the microphone or because it simply didn't quite translate. There was talk of cutting drummers and bassists, of carrying a knife - some people got what this meant and laughed. Some didn't and laughed still. Some didn't laugh and waited for him to sing Five Long Years or Lucille or How Blue Can I Get.

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B.B. King took his time. At 85 he has at least earned that.

Some of his guitar playing was clumsy - the funk has gone, the action is slowed. But he has not lost that touch. His first pinch of guitar sounded like only B.B King can sound. His feel is still there. That magical touch. He is still a less-is-more player - even if, logically, at 85, he is not playing as he was at 75, 65, 55 or 45.

Two days on I feel like I can remember - instantly recall - every single note that B.B. King played. It was not a blur of sound as is the case with so many guitarists. It was not buried. It was not phoned-in either. It was the sound of B.B. King. The feel that only he has - it might have inspired hundreds of players, or thousands. But it is something that only The King of the Blues can do. Only B.B. King actually sounds like B.B. King.

That's why I went along to see B.B. King.

I did not go to hear a flawless version of Key to the Highway. I did not go to hear the definitive take of The Thrill Is Gone. I did not expect to hear Hummingbird.

At one point, near the end, almost disrespectfully, people started calling out for things they had not heard. Someone yelled out "play Lucille". Meaning the song. B.B. pointed to his guitar (also called Lucille) and tapping it said, "I have been playing Lucille - all night."

Some people seemed upset with the style of this show - a lot of talk, some songs served up in a medley, some little more than intros and outros, King's banter dictating.

I chose to enjoy his voice - that voice is just amazing. Still. I chose to enjoy the small pinches of guitar. I chose to enjoy the band. I chose to see and hear it as almost the closing of a chapter. We'll never see B.B. King play in New Zealand again. It's unlikely that he will tour for much longer - even if he does continue to tour until the day he dies. As I'm sure is the plan.

I chose to attend as a way of honouring the man - The King. I chose to see and hear this for what it was - an 85-year-old man putting on a show, playing some of his signature licks, courting the respect he deserves from some incredible musicians.

I say chose but it was never that clinical. As soon as that band started, as soon as B.B. King walked on stage, I was 14 again, remembering being amazed by the cheap compilation tape of B.B. King. I was 19 again, watching When We Were Kings. I was 21 again and listening to B.B. King's best albums. I was back to two years ago watching Soul Power. I was 11 and 12 and 16 and 34 - watching B.B. King and Friends over and over and over...

I did not figure that because it was $181 for admission, I'd get a ticket back to seeing and hearing the B.B. King of Live at The Regal or Live in Cook County Jail.

It was sad. But it was beautiful. It was memorable. It was real. It was emotional. It was exactly as I expected a B.B. King concert in 2011 to be. And I'm so thrilled I got to see him. Sure, it would have been amazing to see him in 1970 - though impossible for me. It would have been better (in so many ways) to see him even 10 years ago, still standing. But I chose to see him in April 2011. And the thrill was still there. It was far from gone.

Just as I carried with me every experience I had of seeing and hearing footage of B.B. King, he carried with him on the slow, lopsided walk to the stage a history of the blues, a dignity and a joy. He carried with him the dozens of children, the fact that he was born on a plantation; he carried with him those two incredible live albums - two of the best released by anyone, ever. He carried with him the tutelage of players like Clapton - who, like or loathe, did so much to spread the name, to introduce the music of King to a wider audience. He carried in his heart a joy and love of playing.

And that was rewarded by the standing ovations - by King playing a slightly longer set, repeating a couple of the songs as, essentially, encores. It was a case of bowing down to the King.

And I'm so happy that I got to see and hear him live.

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