B.B., blues and blabbermouths
“I’m just not really that much of a B.B. King fan,” I thought to myself, as my friend was explaining that she was going to see his 80th birthday concert at Belly Up. I’m a huge blues fan, in the true “fanatic” sense of the word. My CD collection is labeled “Blues” and “Other Stuff.” I have an impressive collection of pre-and post-war country blues, which I’ve been told sounds to the lay-listener like scratchy old recordings of dead guys. Whatever. I study the liner notes of these CDs and records with far more intensity than I ever put into my brief stint in college, meaning I’m bursting with useless blues trivia.For example, I know B.B. was influenced by Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson and Sonny Boy Williamson. In my CD collection I have recordings by each of these guys, but I don’t have a single B.B. King album.So, as my friend sat in my kitchen telling me about her concert plans, I was unimpressed. Not that I have anything against B.B. King, it’s just that he tends toward loud electric solos and horn sections. I prefer my Blues a bit more subdued and acoustic. A horn section in a blues band? Not my thing.”But,” I thought, “I guess if I HAD to forego my purist snobbery and see B.B. King, the cozy and intimate confines of the Belly Up would be the place to do it. Not that I could afford the $150 ticket price …”Hey,” my friend said, “I have an extra ticket. You should come with me, Barry. You like blues, right?””Yes,” I said. “Yes I do.”So, presto – there I am, front and center at the B.B. King concert, standing about a dozen feet from where Mr. King is sitting, guitar in lap, having just sent the horn section on a break to start a more quiet, intimate set. He had just finished a song that was clearly influenced by Skip James’ “Washington D.C. Blues.” Skip James was from Bentonia, Miss., and first recorded in 1930, and his unique open D-minor guitar tuning was an influence on both Robert Johnson and … oh, never mind …The thing is – B.B. King was amazing! Oozing with presence and charisma and completely deserving of the title “living legend.” And he was right in front of me! I was as impressed as a blues snob could be, and I could not take my eyes off of him.As a way to set up his next song, B.B. brought the band down behind him so he could do some ‘splainin’. In this case, he was pointing out the difference between “dinner” and “supper.” It was a charming and funny spiel, full of ribald blues double-entendre and delivered with his distinctive, paid-my-dues voice.”This,” I thought, “is as cool as anything.””This,” every single person standing around me thought, “is a good time to start chatting.” Suddenly I’m in the middle of a cocktail party, surrounded by people talking absolute bollocks while B.B. King plays just a few feet away.”I’ve been thinking of getting that laser eye surgery,” someone standing directly behind me said. Really, really loud.”I had a friend who had that done,” someone standing even closer to my ear yells. “And they swear by it!”The guy in front of me screams to a stranger: “Hey! Don’t you have a house on Cemetery Lane!?””Yeah!” Very loud.”We’ve been looking at building there, but are having some permit issues! I’d love to get together and talk to you about it!””Yeah! OK!”The guy off to my left is talking so freakin’ loud that I wondered why he’d bothered to bring a megaphone to a concert: “I’ve seen B.B. King in Australia! And England! And New York! And…!”And you do realize, Mr. Megaphone Voice, that you could be seeing B.B. King in Aspen, right? I mean, he is, believe it or not, right in front of you, and in the middle of a song.I strained to hear B.B.’s dissertation on the act of getting supper, giving him all the zen-like focus I could muster, trying my hardest to filter out the pressing discussions of zoning and corrective surgery. Now I understand why B.B. King gave up the acoustic guitar. I actually found myself looking forward to the horn section returning to the stage.
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