“I am 87 years old,” B.B. King reminded the crowd, early on in his show at the Times Square, New York club that bears his name. Although, as he noted a few minutes later, “Sometimes I feel a little young!”
There’s no getting around Mr. King’s age. And yet, when he sings, it doesn’t matter. Even if he never picked up a guitar, he could have had a career as a crooner. He keeps the guitar on his lap for much of his show, with the members of his backing band taking a generous amount of solos. His voice has lost little of its power over the decade.
But when B.B.’s left hand jumps to grab his guitar Lucille and he plays a few notes, the decades melt away. Also melting: women, who screamed with each note. Add to that list: any guitar player, male or female, in the room. All of who are well aware that the way they play their instrument has been influenced by what the man on the stage was doing, decades ago. So it’s a privilege to see that man still doing that thing today.
Not to say that the only reason to catch B.B. King in concert is to be in the presence of a man who made history, although that surely is part of the fun. If you want to see a great blues performance, B.B. still satisfies. Much of that is due to his aforementioned incredibly tight backing band, who do a lot of the heavy lifting. But B.B. has always been a combination of bluesman and performer, and his charisma goes a long way: the audience is with him through every joke, every story, every funny facial expression. While he hams it up, the band watches his every move and react musically, and their tightness harkens back to an earlier era of show business standards (ditto for their matching tuxedos).
(photo credit: Maria Ives)
Very early on, he introduced each member: it’s clear that he knows that these guys are great. But introductions aside, when he played “I Need You So,” you couldn’t be sure if he was singing about a woman, his band or the audience. The same is true for his take on “You Are My Sunshine.”
Some songs, like “Caledonia” and “Rock Me Baby,” are well-worn, but B.B. still plays them as if he has something to prove – more so with his standard “The Thrill Is Gone” (which is, essentially, his “Stairway To Heaven” or “Freebird”), where he still pulls out solos with an intensity, as if he’s determined not to let the thrill slip away. More than six decades after his first single, he is successful in hanging onto that thrill, and sharing it with audiences, night after night.
— Brian Ives, CBS Local