When B.B. King left the Mississippi Delta region for Memphis in 1947, Harry Truman was president, the world was still spinning 78 rpm discs, television was just beginning to catch on, Elvis was a 12-year-old schoolchild. Sixty years on, having survived several presidents, various playback formats, almost all of his contemporaries of his stature and even many in the next two generations, the King is still touring compulsively. And though he’s more inclined these days to relax and banter from his seat centerstage, there is plenty of fire left within the bluesman from Indianola, Miss. — though you have to wait for it to ignite.
At 81, King is celebrating his 60th anniversary on the road, part of a 150-stop tour that checked in at the plush Kodak Theater Saturday night — almost as far from the old chitlin circuit as one can get. Here is another astonishing number: He played his 10,000th concert in New York in April. A new DVD of his act, taped at his clubs in Nashville and Memphis, is being readied for release later this year.
Where once King was a commanding force onstage, now he’s more of an avuncular figure entertaining us in a big living room. He knows it, and he makes sport of it, even offering to write our lead sentence for us — “Ol’ B.B. was good, but he talked all night long!”
He does a great, swinging take on Louis Jordan’s “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman,” the high point of King’s romping 1999 tribute album to the R&B pioneer, but you had to wade through a lot of talk to get there.
However, King still has a disciplined seven-piece band loaded with experienced jazz musicians on guard, vamping patiently through the banter, ready to support the King whenever the urge to reach within himself strikes. Ever the canny showman, he conserved and channeled his energy in spurts, the voice erupting in righteous hurt just enough to let us know he’s still got it.
Although the unsubtle Kodak sound system sometimes filtered the quicksilver timbre of Lucille — King’s beloved guitar — through a hash of distortion and poor balances, it didn’t obscure the still-unmatched funky turns that King could pull off at will. He even experimented with some mellow feedback effects.
Even with all of that mileage behind him, King’s irresistible urge to perform is still potent enough to animate his show — which, at 100 uninterrupted minutes, continues to offer excellent value. Why, he may even outlast the iPod.