The thrill is almost gone

by Ryan Snyder

“86,” the ever-enduring BB King reminded the War Memorial crowd only two days after his calendar ticked over one more year. The reminder came as he concluded the sauntering D scale outro to Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” just before easing into Charlie Seger’s “Key to the Highway.” Age ain’t nothin’ but a number to one of the greatest, most influential, most timeless musicians ever to step on a stage. King is a living institution of blues lore, a cornerstone in the foundation of American music. The prosaicisms could go on for days, but seeing the King live these days warrants another refrain: caveat emptor.

With a beaming smile to greet the Sunday evening crowd and the patience of Job when his first licks were met by an overgained signal, there’s little doubt that King is a gentleman of the highest order. He tossed guitar picks out of his pocket like an old man giving candy to children, even taking time to talk to kids in the front in the middle of the set. As a knee-buckling bluesman of the first degree, however, it’s clear that his Live at the Regal days are far in the rearview. In the twilight of his career, a typical 90-min- ute BB King show breaks down like this: a 15-minute instrumental prelude by his astound- ing eight-man backing band followed by five minutes of King’s own introduction, roughly 20 minutes of storytelling over a soft musical bed laid down by his band, a 60/40 split of vocal and guitar by King — seldom concurrently, and another 10 minutes of audience engagement and onstage autograph signing to conclude the show.

The final scene simultaneously sweet and endear- ing for his grandfatherly glee to be around wee ones, yet likely frustrating to those who shelled out upwards of $70 to hear the icon make his music. The few moments he did tap into the artistry that helped to define contemporary blues, it prac- tically sucked the air out of the room. He led his ensemble’s charge on his standard “Rock Me, Baby,” a song no doubt heard hundreds of times in dozens of variations by the 60 percent capacity room, but by King, it’s at its most vital. As his key and tempo subtly sunk lower and lower, it bottomed out into “The Thrill Is Gone,” the flag- ship of his catalog and a song staunchly woven into the fabric of the blues. More often than not, his drawn-out stories had direction. He invited the audience into his own life when he prefaced “Guess Who” with recita- tions on the pitfalls and pleasures of romance.

King’s voice is as rich as ever with a patronly tone, but his band did most of the heavy lifting, freeing up King’s hands and pronounced facial expressions to add a layer to his plea for affection that not even Lucille could convey.

His willingness to engage the crowd came with its disadvantages, however, as it meant enduring a roomful of louts with little disregard for decorum yelling incoherent song requests to a man who probably couldn’t make them out.

It began during a stout opening set by a Bob Margolin-led opening set that included Raleigh bluesman Tad Walters and the ubiquitous Chuck Cotton on drums. Most telling was when those same voices whooped the loudest as King bled into “The Thrill Is Gone” one more time, albeit in a slightly higher register after offering, “Here’s one you ain’t heard before.”

His voice didn’t sound better all night than when he closed with “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and all that said, King has noth- ing left to prove. He hasn’t for decades. Being in his presence bestows a magnificent feeling, like seeing the last of a rare animal in person. The ceaselessly touring King, however, seems to be doing his health few favors. It was an insightful moment when he picked up one cup containing water and another containing orange juice, and proceeded to down the latter in one long gulp.

His battle with Type II diabetes is well chronicled, but anyone who’s known someone with the disease knows that even the most closely managed cases can result in inconsis- tencies of the sufferer. With such an immense and gratifying discography behind him, seeing BB at 50 percent live simply isn’t worth living in a world without the King.

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