King’s shows in recent years have featured as much talk as playing, and the 88-year-old musician is obviously slowing down, just as anyone would. But the balance slipped way out of proportion at this show. King sat center stage and spoke, sometimes in non sequiturs, sometimes inaudibly. He flirted with women in the first few rows and made a few ribald comments, without apology. “I like to have fun,” he said. “I love who I am and what I do.”
For a while, the audience was with him, laughing at his jokes and asides. But it was 45 minutes into the show before King performed anything resembling a song. Even then, his playing was shaky.
After a capable run-through of “Rock Me Baby,” he played “You Are My Sunshine” and asked the crowd to sing along. The house lights came up and King began noticing individuals and waving to them. As the song went around again and again, nattering on for – and this is not a misprint – 15 minutes, audience members began to heckle, yelling out requests or simply calling for King to “play some music!” Some walked out.
King sensed trouble, but he couldn’t understand the things being yelled at him. Eventually, the music stopped and the show ground to an intensely uncomfortable halt. Finally, King realized what it would take to save the day, and his guitar sounded the clarion notes that begin his indelible hit, “The Thrill Is Gone.”
That moment provided a hint of the brilliance King’s performances can achieve. But it was the only one. He completed just two more songs. One is loath to disparage a legend, especially one that is well into his ninth decade. It was enough to give those in attendance the blues. And not in a good way.
I saw B.B. perform eight or nine times between 1982 and 2006. Always a consummate showman, his concerts crackled with the agony and ecstasy of the blues, to say nothing of his glowing warmth and good humor. And, yes, a crack band.
But I haven’t paid money to see King live in nearly a decade for the very reason that his live show has progressively lost those qualities. Here’s an excerpt from my review of a King concert in December 2006.
B.B. King was feeling his age Sunday night at the Bob Hope Theatre.
The years were not terribly present in the way King played before the New Year's Eve crowd of 1,600. Sitting on a chair as he has in concert for several years due to bad knees, the 81-year-old King of the Blues played guitar in his trademark stinging style and sang in a voice both soulful and welcoming.
But what King said and his actions onstage revealed an artist in a reflective mood. King spoke of his connections with two recently passed cultural figures, former President Ford and James Brown, made jokes about his age and closed the show by introducing not just his band, but members of his family and road crew as well.
Even the show's structure underlined King's advancing years. While the Mississippi native has long included in his performances passages of homespun wisdom -- particularly regarding the differences between the sexes -- Sunday's concert featured more such banter than before.
It was as if King -- having decided it is easier to talk than play -- was harnessing his energy for those more taxing moments. That the show was still remarkably enjoyable speaks to the depth of the man's artistry and professionalism.
Suffice it to say, it is long past time that B.B. – the once, always and forever King of the Blues – steps off the concert stage.
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