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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 01/ 3/2011

In concert: B.B. King at the Birchmere

By Mike Joyce

bb kingB.B. King had plenty of fun on stage at the Birchmere Saturday night. (All photos by Josh Sisk/FTWP)

B.B. King said he still performs around the world because his young great-granddaughter "loves money." But not a soul in the packed house at the Birchmere on Saturday night was buying it. The 85-year-old blues legend was having far too much fun, after all, seated center stage with guitar Lucille on his lap, kicking off the new year with a two-hour concert bracketed by boisterous standing ovations. For King, the thrill of playing for an appreciative crowd clearly isn't gone - it's not even faded.

There was a time when the Mississippi native and his horn-powered band would run through a collection of hits in rapid succession, as if their tour buses were double-parked. But no more. Now King's concerts are strictly a casual affair, relaxed and remarkably intimate, even in large spaces.

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Chatting between tunes, King recalled an early encounter with Willie Nelson ("Fell in love with the man, and I ain't gay yet"), gave thanks for the boost he receives on the road from a medical team headed up by "Doctor Viagra," and playfully tried to coax a smile from one somber bandmate ("Show me the teeth you've got left"). Sure, King rambled on now and then - at one point the audience tried to disabuse him of the notion that actor Andy Griffith had passed away. But no one seemed to mind. He'd get back on track soon enough, hoist Lucille a notch, then vigorously revive an old hit ("Everybody Wants to Know Why I Sing the Blues," "Rock Me Baby") or soulfully cover a personal favorite ("Key to the Highway" and Nelson's "Night Life").

"Don't ever get to be my age," the bluesman cautioned after briefly forgetting a lyric. Flubs didn't matter much, though. He could always rely on Lucille to compensate, with her fluttering vibrato, octave slides and trademark mix of major and minor riffs. King was in good voice, too. He bellowed when a line such as "I got a mind to give up living and go shopping instead" demanded it, and crooned when the mood shifted to romantic ballads and a purposely clunky, singalong rendition of "You Are My Sunshine."

Of course, listening to King play now, it's impossible to mistake his influence on generations of blues and rock guitarists. He's always expressed his admiration for their technical proficiency. But truth is, he can say more with a few notes located within reach of one hand position than most of his fret-burning disciples can while navigating the entire guitar neck. During one tune, in fact, King relied on just a single piercing tone to get his point across, sustaining it with one finger while dreamily resting his head in the palm of his other hand, as if in thrall to the sound of Lucille's voice. (King didn't introduce Lucille; he didn't have to. Prior to the concert, fans with cellphone cameras lined up in front of the stage to snap photos of the world's most famous axe.)

No, not even after some 15,000 performances can King conceal the enjoyment he derives from being onstage. He still gets his kicks celebrating the fundamental elements of his style - those sinuous T-Bone Walker riffs and blasting jump band sonics, for starters. And his band of genuine road warriors had no problem evoking the requisite atmospherics, right down to the inevitable finale: "The Thrill Is Gone" - a minor key classic and major league crowd-pleaser.

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By Mike Joyce  | January 3, 2011; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  In concert  | Tags:  B.B. King  
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Next: Week ahead: Paul Collins pops off at Comet; Rick Ross's freebie; Best Coast on "Fallon"


I have to confess that I have always been a Muddy Waters man. Catching him at such legendary venues as the Cellar Door and the Bayou were an important part of my concert tutelage coming of age in the Washington D.C. area of the 1970s. But, BB King, was a part of a slightly younger generation of bluesmen following the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and John Lee Hooker– just as they had been preceded by Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Charlie Patton, and others; and, it took me a few years to really appreciate his moniker as “King of the Blues.”

Since then, I have been fortunate to see and hear BB King at many different venues from D.C. to Philadelphia, and been witness when he burnt the house down as he did a few years ago at DAR Constitution Hall. Now, Saturday night’s performance was not a virtuoso example of blues guitar styling, but it was an incredibly revealing look at how the Blues can sustain a person physically, spiritually, and emotionally. What makes BB so special is that he lives and loves the Blues– and that includes those in attendance at his concerts. It’s the raw emotional connection that transpired Saturday night that elevated BB’s performance from mere standard concert fare to a highly charged personal connection. The evening was part concert, church service, and family reunion-- with BB playing the part of the revered patriarch preaching to the converted.

The show opened with D.C.’s own Daryl Davis pounding out jump blues and boogie woogie standards on his keyboard-- and his performance added immensely to the festive mood of the audience. His playing and deep baritone were in particularly good form. Finally, The BB King Band was spot on as they meandered to and fro across the small stage. A few minor infractions could easily be put down as incidentals the day after New Years festivities. The band, as always was tight, frolicking, and professional.

In the end, what makes a BB King performance so special, is the intangible, almost diaphanous emotional connection that he creates through his showmanship and love for the Blues. The fragility of humankind make this a fleeting, rare occurrence that I’m glad I was able to witness. Long may the “King” sing the Blues.

Posted by: AndrewReeder | January 3, 2011 3:22 PM | Report abuse

For B.B. King fans and all those interestedin America's heritage music,come visit the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola,Mississippi. This $15+ million museum with 20,000 square feet of exhibit space will amaze you with award-winning, high definition films, rare artifacts (including more than one Lucille and a dozen Grammys), and never-before seen photographs. Indianola, which B.B. has always claimed as his home, is not far from Memphis, Jackson or Little Rock, and is full of good food and friendly people. You'll feel welcome here in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, the home of America's music and B.B. King.

Posted by: ashackelford | January 4, 2011 4:03 PM | Report abuse

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