For B.B. King, the thrill isn’t gone yet
August 13, 2006
Heads turned as B.B. King walked through the crowd at the Belly Up on Saturday night shaking hands. The band was already burning through the set, getting people going, showcasing the horns. And then there he was, the king of the blues, smiling, nodding, greeting and walking on stage.”You don’t have to travel someplace to see something beautiful,” he said, reminding the audience he had played in more than 90 countries. “Just come to Aspen.”The crowd roared.It’s because B.B. King is a class act. He’s a showman. It’s not just another gig. He knows where he is and he makes you feel like he cares.Then he kicked it off with, “Why I Sing the Blues,” just to let everyone know that it’s actually him.”I’m now 80 years old and very happy to be here,” he said. And though he sat through the performance, the man’s fingers are still nimble and his voice is sure. It’s hard to believe he’s been working the stage for six decades.He claimed that while he was walking in, a young guy said it was his first blues show.”I get scared when a guy tells me it’s his first,” said King. “I’ll try to do my best but sometimes my best isn’t as good as I want it to be.”The set was evidently as good as everyone at the Belly Up wanted it to be. The place was packed and the crowd sang along, danced and grinned.For the first half of the show, the whole band was there, ripping it up. There were four horns, drums, guitar, bass and keyboards backing King up. But about halfway through, the horns left and it was back to the good old rhythm and bass.That was probably at about the time when B.B. King really started talking it up. He just went off, making jokes and laughing.”No disrespect, miss,” he said to someone in the front row. “I said I was 80 years old, not dead, so watch it.”The music was rolling lightly behind him; then the ensemble would break into a fresh song, finish and slip right back into the conversation. “I can see the paper tomorrow,” he said. “It’ll say old B.B. was good but he talked all night.”Then all too soon he was making those motions that he would play one more. After the hour-and-a-half set, King stood on the stage to pass out some pins and necklaces before he was gone.It was all too quick. When King got on-stage and lit up Lucille, an 80-year-old man’s face glowed up like a 6-year-old’s. He was just having fun, just playing around.For one night, B.B. King was in Aspen, completely present on the stage.
At the close of his version of “Key to the Highway,” a blues classic about “walking that highway till the day I die,” B.B. King tacked on the promise, “I’ll be doing this till the day I die.”The way King played guitar, sang the blues and entertained the crowd at Belly Up on Saturday night, it was easy to see King making good on that vow. It was also possible to believe that King has many miles to go down that highway before he will lay down his guitar.The Belly Up performance was part of King’s 80th birthday celebration tour, and at 80 – 81 next month – the bluesman hasn’t lost his skills a bit. When he leans back and shouts the blues, what comes out is a roar of emotion. Even better, King and Lucille – his custom, black Gibson guitar, now in a version that reads “80” on its head – make that trademark stinging sound with the same authority as ever. King’s guitar tone is a wonder, unmistakable, clear, at times sophisticated – and a key part of the foundation of all electric blues. Despite the diabetes that makes him sit all night, King doesn’t seem to lack for energy.The other side of why King just might play the blues till he is put to rest is not as pretty. With an adoring crowd that gave him an ovation just for downing his cup of water (seriously!), it is just too easy, too effortless for King to please the crowd. Beyond his appearance being a brief hour and 20 minutes or so, and spending much of that time talking, King, on Saturday night at least, rarely reached deep into the emotion that is at the core of the blues. Too often, songs were unnecessarily broken up so King could add commentary: “When Love Comes to Town,” for instance, is as fine a song as King has in his repertoire. Did we need interruptions for King to inform us that U2’s Bono had written it for him?Assuming the blues is still about struggle, this wasn’t much of a blues show. It was indeed, as billed, a celebration. Any sense of the blues that King might once have conveyed has been overtaken by other feelings. In this case, those emotions are nothing to be sneezed at: King appears grateful, warm and satisfied.Perhaps the best part of the show were King’s facial expressions and hand gestures. King shook his fists, folded his hands over his heart and kept his eyes open, wide and inviting, for an audience standing at an uncommonly close distance in this unusual club setting. Two other highlights of the show were the glorious version of King’s signature tune, “The Thrill Is Gone,” and King’s astounding horn section.At 80, or any age, apparently it is good enough just to be B.B. King. And for those of us much younger than that, maybe we should be grateful that King can still sing and play like he did as a 50-year-old.By Stewart Oksenhorn