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Reading about B.B. King’s “bizarre” performance Friday night at the Peabody Opera House in St. Louis, which incorporated “only a handful of complete songs” and a 15-minute sing-along of “You Are My Sunshine,” didn’t catch this observer by surprise.
The same thing occurred back in February, when I caught the 88-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Fame legend during a performance at the Canyon Club in Agoura Hills, Calif., where he similarly meandered, spending more of his time flirting with the ladies in the front row than performing. It raises a serious issue about veteran performers, namely, when is it time to retire gracefully, especially when you have a whole apparatus — musicians, managers, agents and family — relying on the gravy train to keep rolling?
Here’s my account of what happened:
It was a surreal night in an always-bizarre setting, amid the boomer-centric supper club patrons at this Elks Club-like lounge in an Agoura Hills strip mall off the 101, where veteran promotion executive Craig Lambert has been holding the fort.
Don’t know what I expected from the 88-year-old guitar legend and his faithful sidekick Lucille, but I certainly got more than I bargained for. Ambling up to the stage, King is resplendent in a gold jacket and, like Solomon Burke before him, has to be settled onto a chair in front of his eight-piece band, whose members vamp while B.B. introduces each person via an extended monologue and some shtick, in between kibitzing with the crowd and admiring all the lovely ladies and their dapper dates in the ringside tables.
“I may be saying the right thing to the wrong people, or the wrong thing to the right people,” he laughs, at least 20 minutes into the show without having played a single note. Among his bandmates are nephew Walter Riley King on horns and veteran Houston blues bandleader James “Boogaloo” Bolden. King mentions his advanced age several times before finally announcing, “We’re about ready to go work,” launching into an abbreviated “I Need You So,” the lead carried by piano, as B.B. pecks a few scratches out of Lucille.
Then come the strains of “Rock Me Baby,” with King trading licks with the organ before toweling himself off. “She must have said no,” he jokes after an elongated sax squeal. A meandering 20-minute rendition of “You Are My Sunshine” follows, with King urging the crowd to sing along as the lights come up, bantering and flirting outrageously with the front rows, often off-mic.
“If you want to get kissed,” he says at one point, “you have to pucker.” With the opening strains of “The Thrill Is Gone,” a collective sigh of relief is audible, the crowd finally getting what it came for. “Darlin’ You Know I Love You” follows, B.B. now on familiar turf. “You gone and left me for someone else,” he sighs, suddenly sounding every one of those 88 years. Then it’s “How Blue Can You Get,” King pleading now, “I gave you seven children and now you want to give them back.” Dude is connecting. Snippets of “Nobody Loves Me but My Mother” precede a shouted request for “When Loves Comes to Town,” his collaboration with U2. He sings the title, then says, “I forgot the rest.”
Continuing to carry on a steady stream of conversation with whoever engages him, B.B. introduces Lucille, his trusty Gibson. “I’ve been trying to play her right all night long,” he laments before dedicating a stop-and-start “When the Saints Go Marching In” to Willie Nelson, with whom he explains he once played at Farm Aid.
The show sputters to a halt, B.B. still stage-center, now surrounded by milling well-wishers, as he autographs guitars and poses for cell phone photos. “That was the best five-song concert I’ve ever seen,” says someone.
No, Johnny Rotten, I didn’t feel cheated. Not did I pay, but if I had, it still would’ve been worth it just to be in the presence of greatness, however tarnished. Even if it was a little like seeing a 42-year-old Willie Mays fall down in the outfield during the ’73 World Series while playing for the Mets, Y.A. Tittle’s bald noggin bloodied by the Pittsburgh Steelers or the great Muhammad Ali taking a fearsome pummeling from Larry Holmes.
In the end, growing old comes with the territory for a bluesman, all that frailty and pain only gets more acute with age, the spirit is still willing, the flesh weak, which has always been the controlling paradox in this venerable genre.
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