As a kid, I never quite knew what to make of B.B. King.
In an era of flashy, over-the-top guitarists, B.B. would strut onto my snowy TV screen and sprinkle a few notes here, a few notes there. Almost like musical punctuation marks, or daubs of color on a blues canvas.
After Wednesday’s show at the Mayo Performing Arts Center, I’m still not sure how I feel about his guitar style.
Lucille, his famed instrument (named for a woman at the center of a fight that burned down a joint where B.B. was performing decades ago) had an easy night in Morristown. B.B. did more chatting than playing. At 87, the man is entitled. He’s got a snazzy seven-piece band to do the heavy lifting.
What really impressed me were B.B. King’s vocals. The years have given his voice a mellow quality that is as warm as the personality he exudes from his chair onstage.
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(B.B.–who reportedly has 15 children and enough grandchildren for an orchestra–disputed the age of one of his sons while bantering with the band. “Sixty-three?” he said, feigning surprise. “I’ll have to talk to his mother. I didn’t know that!”)
He led the audience in a playful singalong on You Are My Sunshine, crooned a foot-stomping version of Key to the Highway, and channeled the rascal who sired all those kids in Rock Me, Baby:
Rock me, baby
All night long.
Rock me, baby,
Like my back ain’t got no bone.
Blind Lemon Jefferson’s See That My Grave is Kept Clean was a little spooky. Darlin’ You Know I Love You and The Thrill is Gone felt real, and B.B. dusted off his boogaloo for When Love Comes to Town.
For me, though, the highlight was Guess Who. This was sweet and lilting, with B.B. trading soft guitar licks with lovely riffs from his flutist. It was sublime.
The opening act, an R&B trio led by guitarist Todd Wolfe (formerly of Sheryl Crow’s band) got the night off to a solid start, setting the table for B.B.’s horn section to herald B.B.’s arrival with brassy pomp.
Rock me, baby. Long live B.B. King.