Monday, Nov. 18, 2013 09:24 am
The thrill is gone
B.B. King disappoints
The best concert I ever saw was Ella Fitzgerald on May 12, 1985 at the Seattle Center Opera House.
It was Mother’s Day and my date was my grandmother, a hopeless jazz addict who made sure that I saw every legend who was still ambulatory and selling tickets. Dave Brubeck. Buddy Rich. Dizzy Gillespie. Ray Charles. We saw them all, usually in second-tier small auditoriums that were poor substitutes for smoky nightclubs where they built their reputations, one night at a time.
At 68, Ella was far past her prime. Her performance included an interlude where some guy played piano, and for a long time, while she went backstage to rest. But man, did we ever get our money’s worth. She couldn’t hit the high notes but it didn’t matter. With the high range unreachable, she went low and gravelly, the finest Satchmo copycat ever, and Louis Armstrong – I don’t care what anyone says – could never scat like Ella, whose phrasing and imagination were in full effect that day. It was beautiful, other worldly, how-is-she-doing-that stuff, and not without huge effort. When she was finished, stagehands came out, one on either side, to take each arm and help her away. She received a sustained standing ovation from a crowd that knew full well that there would be no encore.
And then there is B.B. King.
Sunday’s show at the Sangamon Auditorium at University of Illinois Springfield marked the third time I have seen the master bluesman. The first time was more than a quarter-century ago (with my grandmother, naturally), the second in 2006 at UIS. I don’t recall spectacular performances on either occasion. Rather, King on those earlier dates picked his spots with so-sweet but too-brief solos that quenched the audience’s thirst but didn’t go much beyond, which, if not fine, was acceptable. He is, after all, B.B. King, a man who has more than paid his dues since the 1940s with gigs large and small throughout the world.
But King at 88 is no longer fit to perform.
Sunday’s show – don’t dare call it a concert – was a painful embarrassment. King, who talked to the audience more than he did anything else, barely played his instrument, and when he did, it was awful – jarring, and thankfully brief, solos that made one wince, as if he was just learning to play guitar. When he started what passed for riffs, he didn’t seem to know where he would end up or how he would get there, and so it was a mish-mash of random noodling, and he seemed to know it. He played for well under ten minutes during the course of the 90-minute event. The rest was talking while his band played softly or not at all.
The lowest point came near the end when King’s band started into “When The Saints Go Marching In.” King, however, was playing “You Are My Sunshine,” a number from earlier in the show that set the tone for a disappointing night. It wasn’t clear whether King was confused or taking a risk by putting a melody from one song over the harmonies of another. If it was the latter, it was the only risk of the night and a complete failure.
King has always liked to talk on stage, and he fixated on his age throughout Sunday’s performance. “He and I were together when they put the tops on the pyramids,” he said of a longtime bandmate. “I can remember the melody, but I have a hard time remembering the words,” he apologized before setting out on an awful version of “Night Life.” The room fell uncomfortably silent more than once, the loud hum of a PA system the backdrop to an unfolding disaster.
“B.B, I have a question,” a woman shouted out about halfway through the show during a quiet stretch. A few people told her to be quiet, and King didn’t respond, but in truth, the evening would have been more entertaining if he had put down his guitar and simply taken questions from the audience.
Appropriately, King never uttered the word “Lucille,” the name he bestowed on his guitar back when he was among the planet’s top musicians. Lucille didn’t deserve this, nor did the audience. People started walking out midway through the 90-minute performance. The exodus continued even during “The Thrill Is Gone.” It certainly was.
The best thing that could be said for King on Sunday is that he has a great voice for a man who is nearly 90. It is not as good a voice as he once had, and it was not as good a voice as the lead singer for any given band on any given night in any given beer tent during the state fair.
The ending was just plain weird. The house lights never fully dimmed during the show, presumably so King could see the audience, but people could also make their way safely to the exits, which they did in droves when he announced that “When The Saints Go Marching In” would be the last number. The song simply petered out, with King never leaving his chair at the edge of center stage as his band played on while people left.
When, mercifully, the auditorium fell silent, King remained for nearly 40 minutes, signing autographs for loyal fans, people who knew a legend when they saw, if not heard, one. And he drank it up. He had to be told several times that the bus was waiting.
“Bye, bye,” he finally said as he put on a wool overcoat and walked, a bit unsteadily. off the stage. He was still ambulatory. But he should not be selling tickets.
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.