I had the opportunity to see one of the most engaging live performers of all time this last weekend, Mr. B.B. King. I saw him at the Peppermill Concert Hall in Wendover, Nevada on November 13, 2009. I have seen video performances of B.B. King but had never gotten a chance to see him perform live. All I can say is thank heaven I got the chance to see him because it was one of the best concert experiences I’ve ever had.
B.B. King is now 84 years old and his playing has slowed down a bit but he still has an excellent feel for blues guitar. His voice is older but it is still rich and full. The thing that really stood out for me is the man’s stage presence. He is an absolutely commanding presence when he walks onstage. His name King is truly fitting because it’s like the King arrived as soon as he walked out onstage.
Let me back up to the beginning of the show. The show began with B.B.’s backing band playing a couple of Jazz/Blues numbers. King’s backing band as you would expect is highly talented and very enjoyable to listen to. The band is comprised of 2 saxophones players, 2 trumpet players, drums, guitar, bass and keyboards. That many musicians gives a very full sound and they create an excellent backdrop for B.B. King.
After the initial instrumental numbers Mr. B.B. King himself walked out onstage to a standing ovation and took his seat at center stage. B.B. welcomed everyone to the show and explained that he is now 84 years old, diabetic and can’t get around like he used to. To me he looked good for his age and health.
The way that B.B. talks to the audience is one of the things that makes him such a fantastic performer. It’s like having a wise old father sit down and have a talk with you about history and life in general. The way that he weaves his stories into the music is completely engaging and time just seems to fly by. B.B. is very good at making you feel like he’s telling these stories for the first time, just for you. He’s great at making you feel like a very special audience and that makes for a very entertaining show.
As I said before B.B.’s playing has slowed a bit in his senior years but he can really make every note that he plays count. His control over the instrument is phenomenal as he can make Lucille go from a whisper to a scream using only his hands, the guitar’s volume controls and his amplifier. It was wonderful to see the smile fill his face when he hit a high note that would give him the perfect amplifier feedback and Lucille would sustain as long as he wanted to hold that note. I would have liked to have heard him play more guitar but that’s only part of the show with Mr. King.
Obviously a huge part of the show is B.B. King’s singing of the classic blues songs that have defined his career. One of my favorites that he played was “Key To The Highway” which he sang in his full, robust voice. He has a lot of fun with some of these songs and he really put the story across on “Key To The Highway”. Another song that he did very well and which was quite poignant at this point in his career was “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”. B.B. does such a wonderful job of pulling the audience into these stories that you just hang on every lyric. Another of my favorite lyrics that he sang on this night is from the song “Bluesman” where he sang, “I’m a poor man, I’m a bluesman but I’m a good man.”.
Some of my favorite moments on this night had to do with his interaction with his band. The drummer was doing some things to upset Mr. King and B.B. had no reservations about giving him an earful in front of the audience. I was cracking up when B.B. said “They think they can outrun me and they can, but I have a knife and I’ll cut ya!” of course he said it in jest with a smile and it got a good laugh out of the crowd. The image of B.B. King in a knife fight is downright hilarious to me! B.B. King is very in command of the band as well and directs them to quiet down so he can talk, directs them in finding the proper groove for his songs and has no qualms about making the band restart a song that he doesn’t feel began well.
B.B. also gave a great talk about how he loves all kinds of music and he loves to play things other than the blues. At which point he launched into “You Are My Sunshine” which turned into an audience sing-along. B.B. mentioned the ladies all night long and it’s no secret that B.B. King loves the ladies. He does a great job of making the women in the audience feel special. I’m sure that goes a long way in keeping concert attendance up and is a good marketing lesson to all of us that play in a live band.
At the end of the show B.B. launched into a verse of “The Thrill Is Gone” which I’m sure he’s tired of playing. He then proceeded to give out guitar picks, chains, necklaces and all sorts of stuff to the people in the first few rows of the concert hall. It was so cool to see him shower the crowd with gifts from the King. He then had his assistance fetch him his coat and hat, dressed for the cold and gave the standing audience a parting wave.
If you have never seen B.B. King do a live performance before then you owe it to yourself to get out there and see one of his shows. It’s truly an experience and this American icon could leave this mortal plane at any time. DVD’s and recorded performances just do not do this man justice and it’s one experience I’ll never forget.