Anne Notations

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Long Live the King

B.B. King - his initials stand for "Blues Boy" - is frailer now than when I saw him five years ago. His shoulders are stooped, and his old silver head sags forward.

Last Thursday night at the Providence Performing Arts Center, while his veteran backup band ran through a series of foot-tapping solos, I spotted B.B. sitting in a wheelchair offstage, waiting for his cue. In the shadows, the King of the Blues looked every bit the octogenarian, and I wondered if I'd made a mistake in buying tickets to this 80th birthday concert. I had no desire to watch a simulacrum of my musical hero get trotted out and patronized or exploited, propped up solely by his fans' memories.

Then King's saxophonist stepped to the mike and in a rush of tenor patter asked us to welcome “the King of the Blues.” B.B.'s attendant walked him out on stage to a chair set up for him, and it didn't matter whether he'd be as spry or musical as the old B.B. because he was B.B. King, man, and we all loved him and told him so. "We love you, B.B.!" "Happy birthday!" The hall filled with applause, shouting, hooting, whistling; and B.B. smiled. "Thank you," he said in that memorable Mississippi voice. "You're so good to us. Thank you."

At first it seemed that B.B. was going to spend most of his time on stage talking and telling anecdotes and jokes, playing a few licks and letting his bandmates run with most of the solos. But halfway into the concert, the brass musicians left the stage, leaving B.B. and a stripped-down ensemble of guitar, bass, keyboard, and drums to run through some classic blues songs. B.B.'s left hand with its long supple fingers fluttered over Lucille's neck like a butterfly, drawing sweet notes and cries from the guitar, the tone slightly fuzzed by the amps so that at times it sounded almost like a horn, at other times like the screech of heavy metal. I could hear echoes of the younger musicians who had borrowed so generously from B.B.'s technique: Hendrix, Santana, Stevie and Jimmy Vaughan.

"Good things come to those who wait," B.B. sang.
"And I’ve waited a long time.
"I’m a blues man, but a good man, understand."

We understood; oh yes. For 90 minutes we ate it up. At the end, when B.B. stood to thank and salute us, we roared and waved like an ocean of sheer adoration. Then the attendant helped our King off the stage, and in the darkness beyond I could see him settle, exhausted, into his wheelchair and place a soft old cap on his head.

Sometimes in life you are lucky enough to be in the same room with genius. Last Thursday night, for the third time in my life I was in a concert hall watching B.B. King do what he does better than anyone else in the world. The man purely touches my soul with his music and his presence. The thrill is alive and well.


  • I found this deeply touching. There's something about actualized genius, seeing it brought to it's heights by the one who has mastered this brilliance that is so moving to me.

    A few years ago I saw Brian Wilson on a very early concert of his comeback tour. Wow.

    Billy Crystal was a wow of that kind of magnitude. And just last week Mandy Patinkin was that kind of a testament as well.

    By Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann, at Thu May 25, 11:24:00 PM EDT  

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