October 2, 2009
Athens, Georgia is lucky enough to have a few of its own legends-in-waiting, but in 2009, there are very few as legendary as B.B. King. I hope that those lucky enough to be in attendance at Mr. King's October 2 performance at the Classic Center feel as thankful as I do that the 84-year old genre-defining blues artist graced this town with his presence, his charm, and his talent.
B.B. King was clearly in a relaxed, jovial mood on this Friday night. He sat at center stage chatting with the crowd as much as he played, if not more. It felt like a family reunion and that's how Mr. King treated the crowd, like family. He told stories about his childhood in Indianola, Mississippi when he was still working in the cotton fields. He told us of failed and successful relationships. He even recommended his favorite make-out music (Willie Nelson's “Always On My Mind”)! Heck, he even playfully threatened his phenomenal band to “stay in line” with remarks such as, “I hear it's hard to get a job out there these days. You know, I don't give out pink slips, I give out black slips.” At one point, he threatened to “cut” a member (as in, with a knife). Of course, it was all in fun.
More than a few times, Mr. King was close to being a stand-up comedian. In a bit about Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, he declared “Anyone that can swim like that should be able to smoke whatever he wants. He can swim faster than I can walk.”
The humor wasn't confined to the banter either. The beauty of Mr. King's blues is often the way he can mix pathos with humor. Announcing a song with, "I wrote this before your grandparents were born," he'd then belt out lyrics to a song like “All Over Again". “I've got a good mind to give up living and go shopping instead. (I'll) pick up a tombstone and be pronounced dead”. The tragi-comedy of this sort of blues has always drawn me into it. I relate. Sometimes things are so bad that laughing is the only way to get through. B.B.'s questioning of why “Caldonia” has a head that's so big and hard kept the laughs coming. I could see that for many in the audience this night, those laughs were healing.
Of course, B.B.'s guitar playing provided many of the highlights. Each time Mr. King and his shiny, custom Gibson Lucille would launch into a solo, it was a lesson to anyone who's ever picked up an electric guitar. He never played anything overly complicated, but every note cut right through to the soul, resonating and literally shaking the walls. There was an intensity in his sound and touch that those who followed after him have never quite been able to duplicate (no matter how hard they've tried).
One of the few things that Mr. King had a criticism about was the misogynistic lyrics of much modern rap. He then dedicated a very sweet version of “You Are My Sunshine” to the ladies in the audience. At one point, about half-way through the 2-hour show (longer than his usual set length), someone yelled up a request for “The Thrill Is Gone”. Mr. King looked at him in disbelief and responded, “When I don't do “The Thrill Is Gone”, I will be.” Of course he hit that one as his finale to a massive standing ovation.
That amazing voice was so powerful on a tune like "Rock Me, Baby" that he often had to back up nearly a foot from the mic so as to not distort the sound system. Neither his playing nor his booming voice has diminished in the slightest.
This concert was a celebration of living from a man that's done more of it than anyone I know. This is a man who clearly loves life, music and people. This is a man who was lucky enough to combine his loves into a career that has lasted for more than a half-century.
Opportunities to share an evening with a performer of this stature and magnitude are few and far between.
Even as Mr. King was leaving the stage, you could see him taking in his surroundings with a massive, gracious smile on his face. He tossed out guitar picks and shook an uncountable number of hands. B.B. King was happy and he made thousands of people happy along with him.
On the way out, I was thinking about how many have seen Mr. King through the years. Multiply the joy in the room tonight times the number of shows B.B. King has done in his lifetime, times the number of people at each gig. If you do that, you may have the measure of a man who has brought an immeasurable amount of joy to the world. That is a legend. That is B.B. King. Long live the king.
Chris McKay / concertshots.com