“Let the Good Times Roll” served as the opener for B.B. King’s latest go-round — it’s likely he’ll play 150 shows this year — a signal that the material at King concerts just don’t change that much over the decades. King, 82 and certainly the most recorded blues artist ever, is keen on familiarity and that extends from the material to the delivery to the way he treats an audience.
The gospel timbre of his voice and the piercing sting of guitar lines are in tact, it’s a pleasure to note, even as King makes his concerts more like family gatherings than a show. He’s there to tell stories and crack jokes, talk about his health issues and the thrill of feeling loved; the fact that he entertains, too, has become almost secondary.
The voice has impressively retained its warmth and purity and he never sounds stale on his chestnuts (“The Thrill is Gone,” “Everyday I Have the Blues”), but he provides no indication that his years as an octogenarian have been filled with projects above and beyond concert dates. He has an album, his 150th apparently, produced by T Bone Burnett on tap for the fall; his 80th was marked with an album of mostly impressive duets; and a museum dedicated to King will open in his hometown of Indianola, Miss., on his 83rd birthday, Sept. 23.
An entertainer first, much like his early inspiration Louis Jordan, King has made desert out of the reflection on pain and lost love that is the meat and potatoes of the blues. King often wants his audience to laugh and when he turns sage-like, any story about hardship is told from a perspective of “isn’t it great how things change”?
It gets to be a bit much over the course of the 90 minutes he is seated center stage with his guitar Lucille on his lap. He sinks his teeth into riffs rather than entire songs, teasing rather than fully delivering. Friday’s show boasted the usual professionalism we have come to expect from his band, but the more casual King behaves, the more casual the performances become.