Seeing B.B. King, live

Last updated 12:21 26/04/2011

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.

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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Post a comment
Ben F   #1   12:29 pm Apr 26 2011

Amen to that, brother.

damdogue   #2   12:44 pm Apr 26 2011

I saw BB King in Melbourne at the Tennis Centre about 20 years ago. It still has to be the best show I have ever seen. Even when he replaced a string; everything was done with such style!

l0r   #3   12:47 pm Apr 26 2011

I wasn't far behind you Simon, you must have been the man who was sitting in front of Riley B's daughters when he pointed them out!

I agree with a lot of what you say, particularly the disrespect of some audience members, BB obviously still has a quick wit and I was pleased to hear him retort so sharply. The same could be said for the treatment of the brilliant Ruthie Foster who opened. I'm actually surprised you didn't mention them. A standing ovation from me.

All round an excellent evening that will not be forgotten. Long live the King!

Simon DC   #4   12:53 pm Apr 26 2011

Thanks for this Simon - you've captured the mood of the night perfectly. We were in the second row - about 4 metres from the great man (and directly in front of that outstanding bass player). Bittersweet is the only way to describe my first (and almost definitely last) BB King concert.

The supporting acts and the BB King Blues Band provided the technical brilliance and BB himself provided the heart, soul and sheer joy of the blues.

P.S. Did you see the drummer going to town on his double kick? Wonderful.

jamtoe   #5   01:04 pm Apr 26 2011

I hear that. Second time seeing him - first was with U2 in '88. Scary how much better he was than Bono....

Blair   #6   01:08 pm Apr 26 2011

Some can't afford to lose that sorta cash and i'd say the same thing about Bod Dylan, oh no i just called him an electric artist, turn them lights out get out the burner, did he play encores? I'm a little confused now, nuthin new. I went to see a legendary Reggae artist and was glad as houses but half the crowd who seemed to be regulars didn't seem to get it while it was round the corner from the rest of the unknowing world who would have preferred to spend money on booze, I would have been happy but the man was older and it told, i felt like i wanted to be on stage with him at that point rather than far away, great but weird and not in a quirky way, meh, i'm not spendin mya dosh again, we need new acts kickin, its starts here!, too the bar.

Benson   #7   02:57 pm Apr 26 2011

I saw the king in Chch in the late-80s.

He was supported by some band called U2.

I only went to see BB, though.

But that U2 band was okay and went on to have some success, I understand.

Lo-Fi Sheriff   #8   03:04 pm Apr 26 2011

Nice one Simon.I couldn't be there but feel your excellent writing has really given me a taste of something special. Time to go home and pull out those live albums and cranck the record player.I gota say hand on heart, Im really enjoying your writing of late!!keep it up fella!

Cee M   #9   03:14 pm Apr 26 2011

Blair #6 - Cool story bro.

Simon. You are one lucky guy. I've recently discovered BB King after years of trying to force into my hands technique that just does not come to me naturally (I'm talking shred). Hearing a guy pick and choose his notes, playing -in between- the music, and doing it with heart and soul and precision just floored me. I really wanted to go to this concert because, we all know this, at 85, he *won't* be coming here again.

Brilliant post. Summed up The King of The Blues perfectly.

Nick Braae   #10   03:27 pm Apr 26 2011

Makes you wonder what has happened to popular music these days. Will any of the so-called 'stars' or 'greats' of today's music still be going when they reach 85? It's testament to BB King's skill as a MUSICIAN (something pop musos should take note of) that he has, for so many years, and continues to inspire others. AND he still does it all himself.

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