August 14, 2011
B.B. King arrived on the Pac Amp stage August 14 virtually the same as how he would leave it a little more than an hour later. Smiling, waving, walking in a gingerly gate and flinging guitar picks to the first few rows of fans like the pope offering blessings.
His eight-piece band had been warming up the house for several minutes with a tight, polished sound, leaving an empty chair at center stage with the famous black Gibson guitar known as Lucille baiting the audience in anticipation for easily the biggest star the blues form has ever known.
It was an opening that has been standard fare for the blues master's shows for decades. More importantly, it offered a glimpse of an older time and approach in live musical entertainment that is now only a time capsule for the audiences that can catch the few performers left practicing it. And there is an elegance to it that remains a point of distinction. When Van Morrison does it, it's a warning flag waved by an insufferably moody and unreliable talent. When King does it, it is old-fashioned stage craft designed to create anticipation where the payoff is soon delivered.
King is a master entertainer. He's a bridge builder. A man just shy of his 86th birthday who opened with his famous double entendre "Rock Me Baby" that had graying gents in dinner jackets bopping their heads alongside teens in T-shirts and fatigues.
It was proof that despite all the years, there were no cobwebs in the proceedings. King still plays with an expressive joy and ease that has inspired countless players and still manages to amaze in its deceptively simple beauty. And the voice, though softened with time, as true as ever.
As he and the band ran through a handful of tunes, including longtime standards "Every Day I Have the Blues" and "Nobody Loves Me But My Mother," along with "Keys to the Highway," "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" and a rendition of "When Love Came to Town" that joyously freed itself from its pretensions as a late '80s duet with U2, and resembled something much closer to a Stax single, King truly sparkled, a giant in repose. He wandered around effortlessly in song structures carefully hollowed out by his band for him to explore however he pleased.
As if to prove he was not merely looking in the rearview mirror with no exploits, musical or otherwise, left in front of him, he announced his birthday proudly. "I'm 86 and I ain't dead yet," King said. And pointing out a woman in the audience he was watching slowly grind to the groove the band was simmering behind him, he grinned and said, "That's what I'm talking about."
As long as his heart is beating, he is not blues in the past tense, but remains blues eternal.