Photos by Ty Hyten
The Scene: The Flatirons and the setting sun lit the scenic grounds of the Chautauqua Auditorium last Tuesday night before the meeting of two pieces of American history – The 116 year old barn and the 88 year old King of the Blues: BB King.
Gray haired patrons milled about the lawn, drinking beers and exchanging baby boomer banter about their children, the weather, various surgeries, and the dreaded highway construction. Then it occurred to me, even though these fans seemed on the older side, the man they came to see was a full twenty years older and still touring as vigorously as someone their grandson’s age.
BB King: As showtime neared, a large tour bus pulled to the back of the venue, parked, and blue neons lit, tracing the edges. Fans gathered outside of the bus, cell phones in hand, for a chance to see a piece of American history on the other side of the glass. People pushed and jockeyed for position as security guards forced the heard back from the vehicle. Meanwhile, inside the barn, BB’s band took the stage, taking turns soloing on a number of Blues standards. After forty five minutes had passed, the restless crowd around the bus began to thin and I people began to wonder if the King was ever going to emerge or if he was even in there at all. Just then the radio call came in and a security guard cracked the bus door to reveal BB King descending the stairs. I met eyes with my childhood guitar hero and barely recognized the skinny, aging man in the large frame. BB walked gingerly between the arms of two handlers to the backdoor of the venue, waving at fans who yelled out to him. “Thank you, BB,” I yelled, hoping to have some real life connection with the man whose voice and guitar playing had inspired me and so many others. He waved in acknowledgement in a daze, and disappeared into the venue.
In the five minutes it took him to make it from the door to the stage I had time to sprint around the barn and into the venue. As the legendary bluesman came on stage the tiring crowd cheered. He nearly stumbled as he extended his arms to greet his band members as they played him in. Handlers on both sides of BB helped him to his chair at center stage, where he sat for the next hour, in a show that reminded us that even the King must step down at some point.
BB greeted the crowd and apologized for coming on late, stating that he wasn’t feeling well, taking breaks between smiles to wipe his running nose. The legend looked like he was really struggling just to keep his head afloat as he took no less than a decade to introduce his band members with slurred, mostly incoherent speech. “We was together when they was tryin to put the tops on the pyramids,” he said as he introduced nephew Walter Riley King, with the inflection of a drunk. In the process he identified two band members incorrectly, which may have been a joke, but if so, it was delivered so poorly it left the crowd sitting stone faced. During these introductions a true sadness sunk in. It was clear that, sick or not, the King had grown too old to do what he once did so well.
In the opening song, BB cried “Oh, I need you so!” in a voice that had seemed to weather the years far better than his appearance. This opening line ended up being a bit of a false promise as he trudged through “I Need You So,” succumbing to incoherent singing with only brief glimpses of that soulful voice.
On the second of six songs, BB picked up one of the only guitars famous enough to be apart of the American musical lexicon, Lucille. While the tone was unmistakably BB, the playing was not. BB’s signature licks were muddied with missed notes and poor timing. It has been said of BB’s playing that the space between the notes are as important as the notes themselves, but Tuesday night was filled primarily with space, and for good reason – the King can no longer play. That may sound harsh, but his clumsy playing clashed painfully with his well oiled band. The only part of BB’s playing that remained was his clean tone and his signature slide up the neck to end phrases.
With big smiles between songs, BB moved onto what has apparently become an odd inclusion to most of his shows – “You Are My Sunshine.” BB shakely led the crowd in what became a singalong with BB sitting it out and smiling. After this, BB transitioned to “Darling You Know I Love You” injecting a few decent licks but letting the second guitar player rip through most of the song.
After six songs, only two of which containing singing, the house lights came on and BB began tossing guitar picks out to the crowd and saying thank yous. BB explained that he had a terrible headache but he had a great time. Shortly after, one of his handlers approached and signaled that it was time for him to leave, but BB resisted and stayed seated, speaking to the audience who had gathered down front. BB sat there, smiling and mumbling things away from the microphone to the audience that had pushed its way down front. The mob stood, staring quietly and awkwardly at the King. At one point a few people began singing “You Are My Sunshine” and at another point, Happy Birthday (a month early). It was a very bizarre scene. BB just sat there in a daze, exhausted, telling us that we made him happy. From the back, fans yelled out pointless compliments. After ten minutes of this his handlers tried again to persuade the King to get up again and he resisted. It wasn’t until a Muddy Waters song came on the PA, masking his banter that BB slowly rose, walking from the stage in the hands of his management.
Tuesday was a sad night. Rather than leaving the venue glad to have seen an idol, I left sad knowing that is how I will always remember him. It was also a poignant reminder of our eminent mortality as humans. The thought of “why does he still do it?” ran through my mind the entire night. Is it because retiring would be acknowledging the end? Is it to leave as much money possible for his fifteen children? Does he not realize that he can no longer sing nor play? Or does he simply love performing so much that he can’t let go and people continue to fill the seats just for a chance to see him? Whatever the reason, it is heartbreaking and I advise any potential concert goer to stay at home, buy a nice 6 pack of beer and put on Live at the Regal.
Musicianship: D for BB; A for his band.
Stage Presence: C
Set/Light Show: C-