There’s something distinct about music as an art form. While in its breeziest and most disposable incarnations it can be written off as one the cheapest entertainments for the masses, at its best it’s also a ritual, a sacrament, something with the power to form communities and make peace with ourselves. It’s not that other art forms can’t or don’t perform this same function, it’s just that music seems to do it the most often and most universally. I often think about this when I hear the blues. It's become almost a cliche to say it, but their is something so personal and lonely about the blues that it ultimately becomes a celebration of the human condition, in all its rotten, glorious imperfection and ineffability. Sad music, for some reason, is also the music that gives us hope, joy, and affirmation. It's a funny thing.
Anyway, shallow musings aside, what I really want to talk about is the show last week at the Township Auditorium, where 87-year-old blues legend B.B. King took the stage once again. Let’s get to the highlights.
1) It’s B.B. freakin’ King. King of the Blues. No. 6 on the Rolling Stone’s Greatest Guitarists of All-Time. Arguably nobody has done more to popularize the blues genre. This was a chance for Columbians, whether for the first or hundredth time, to pay homage to a musical giant of the 20th century.
2) King is old. Like, great-grandfather old. He has handlers who help him to and from his chair on the stage. He rambles on stage, talks about his kids, misses punch lines, tries to (jokingly?) flirt with Chris Rock’s mother (? – haven’t really been able to fact check this women’s identity, but she was sitting on the edge of the stage watching the show with two other women), and, most of the time, it hardly matters. There’s something joyful about just spending some time with a legend, almost as if we got to sit with him for an hour or two as he held court and casually rambled through a number or two just for our enjoyment. While leaning on extended low-key jam sessions on “You Are My Sunshine” and “When The Saints Go Marching” is a little weak, you still got to spend the evening with the King. Although I could have done without the awkward show end where King sat surrounded by handlers as he tossed guitar picks and necklaces into the audience and acquiesced to a few autograph requests. It was pretty puzzling.
3) King’s band can play. For the first thirty minutes or so of the show, it was nothing but various members vamping and soloing, showing off an electric virtuosity on saxophones, trumpets, flute, keyboards, and electric guitar. While you are definitely coming to hear King’s voice and guitar, it’s worth noting that the B.B. King experience is still in full effect, even before he walks on stage.
4) Even though the band seemed to almost rush through such King standards as “The Thrill is Gone” and “Every Day I Have The Blues,” there were moments where King still seemed in peak condition vocally, alternating his gritty growl with a wonderfully evocative falsetto that showed remarkably little wear. He didn’t stretch himself very far of course, but it was a far cry from the disappointments one might encounter at, say, a Bob Dylan concert. You just really haven't lived until you've heard an 87-year-old blues legend sing "Rock Me Baby" and mean it.
5) And although he didn’t seem terribly interested in playing that much, we still got to hear King play “Lucille.” He didn’t go crazy, but he still stretched out enough a couple of times for the audience to experience one of the most influential guitar-playing styles of all-time. Cross that one off the bucket list.
6) It was also really cool to see King at such a venerable institution as the Township, likely one of only a few venues that's been around the entire length of the bluesman's career that's still on his current set of tour dates. The auditorium's old-school vibe (even with the stylish polish of the recent renovation) felt startlingly appropriate for an artist who really got his start in the 1950s.
7) Last week's audience was also treated to a set by the youthful local duo The Mobros, who likely wowed tons of new fans with an electrifying set that veered from old-school country and soul to hip-shaking R&B and ramshackle garage rock. The two young men, ages 19 and 22, got to share the stage with a hero and legend of theirs for a couple of gigs. On the chance that The Mobros become famous (it's not entirely out of the question), another moment in the increasingly long musical history of the blues might have been witnessed.
I leave you with one of my favorite YouTube clips of King as he slides through "Three O'Clock Blues" in his own inimitable way.
Why You Should Go to Shows is a projected blog series that describes the specific joys of certain live performances rather than providing a strict review of the show in question or speaking of the joy of patronage in the abstract.