Last week I went, along with my daughter, to see B B King play in Paris, in the stately surroundings of Le Grand Rex theatre. I’d never seen B B live before so I was very excited that we were able to go. He’s nearly 87, but still a great performer – one of those artists who really connects with his audience, whether he’s singing, playing or chatting. He said recently, “The way I feel today, as long as my health is good and I can handle myself well and people still come to my concerts, still buy my CDs, I’ll keep playing until I feel like I can’t”. Good on you, B B. My daughter & I and a couple of thousand French adoring fans certainly felt you handled yourself pretty well.
There’s a certain amount of pomp about a B B King concert – well, he is the King, after all. His band (hardly one without six decades under his belt) played for at least five minutes, keeping the tension going, until the great man was escorted to his chair on the front of the stage, where he acknowledged the whooping and hollering, and then royally dispensed guitar picks to the front couple of rows, before sitting down to play. The gift showering ceremony took place at the end of the gig as well, before B B’s minders eventually persuaded him to wave good-bye one final time.
Well, of course, at 86, you’re not going to get the guitar playing of his younger days – but, man, that voice – still thunderous when he gets going and sweet when he wants it to be. And the guitar licks we did get – still that characteristic B B sound. As slide guitarist Derek Trucks recently said, “Still to this day when you see BB, that’s all it takes – hear…one note and you immediately know who you’re dealing with”.
“That one-note thing that BB gets, he’s communicating with you. So he touches that note in the right way to grab your attention. He hits it and it talks to you. It kinda pulls you in…” said Robert Cray, and he’s dead right. Think of all the brilliant guitarists who have played with B B, especially over the past few years – he’s never in their shadow. Because he knows how to communicate, to put heart into every note.
Once he got started, he gave us, amongst others, I Need You So, Key to the Highway, Rock Me Baby and, perhaps surprisingly at his stage of life, Blind Lemon Jefferson’s See That My Grave is Kept Clean. And, of course, the song we’d all come to hear – The Thrill is Gone. All the time, he’s playing the blues, and yet – he’s making you feel good the whole time. Kenny Wayne Shepherd commented on this,“He’s one of the single most influential guitar players to ever pick up the instrument. Part of it is indescribable and part of it is identifiable – from a player’s perspective his vibrato…his phrasing – there’s something very passionate about his choice of notes that’s also very friendly. His music…just makes you feel good when you listen to it”.
That’s it – just makes you feel good – it’s life affirming.
A various stages, over the years, the Christian church has been pretty suspicious of the blues, given its association with juke joints, dancing and sex. Michael Bane, in his book, White Boy Singin’ the Blues, says “The blues especially, were the opposite side of sacred …. You could sing gospel or the blues, but never both. The blues belonged to the Devil, with his high-rollin’ ways… and if you sang his music, the door to the Lord’s house was shut to you”.
Walter Trout, talking about B B King, however, thinks this is too simplistic, “A lot of people in the church, they go through this thing that it’s the devil’s music, but the way he [B B King] plays and the way he sings, that is a gift from God and if you are at all religious you will believe that he has that gift and he was touched when he was, you know, in the womb. If you have a gift like that…you can make the world a better place by sharing it.”
When we heard B B King play last week, I think we all felt this gift of B B’s and we went away feeling enriched from the experience. A B B King concert makes you feel that the world can be a better place. We’ll leave the last word to B B King’s There Must Be Better World Somewhere:
It just ain’t fair, but I know
I said I know, Oh yes, I know
There must be a better world somewhere
There’s just gotta be
Gotta be a better world somewhere