B.B. King long ago earned his name as King of the Blues, and his legacy remains intact, even at 88 years old.His ability as an aging live-performance musician is somewhere between the musical fumbling of Bob Dylan and the ageless talents of Allen Toussaint.He still sings and plays with form and flare, but he also allows his band to do much of the work as he sits in a chair with his guitar Lucille in his lap, picking her up to play her a few times each song before putting her back down.
The King strolled onto stage in a sparkling silver jacket and his long-time band mates helped him to his seat center-stage. He began the show by calling out Quint Davis, the producer of Jazz Fest, who told the crowd, "There are many in the court, but there can only be one king."
For the first part of the show King settled into his chair for a long talk, chatting about New Orleans and Davis, rambling a bit, telling a story that kind of made sense, and making jokes that were simultaneously self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing of his stature and age. He was social and playful. It seemed like he would be content to banter all night, but then he picked his guitar off his lap and played "Every Day I Have the Blues," and reminded everyone why they were there.
King has a minimalist style; he picks at certain notes and allows others to pass unplayed, giving extra strength to those chosen. It might be this style that's allowed him to tour this long into his career; he grips up his guitar, rings a few mighty notes or a soulful solo, and then rests again.
King's eight person back-up band was dapper in black tie dress and all their instruments shined with polish. Many members have been with King for years, and they were definitively professional, consistent and both tight and loose, like a good blues band should be. The bass and drums steadied the show in rhythm, allowing King to come and go as he pleased. Throughout the set, King crooked his finger at his band mates and called them forward to solo. The four-man horn section was especially strong in accentuating King's guitar work.
The band kept the tempo slow, playing electric blues at the pace of country blues, except one faster rock song, "Shake It Up and Go," before returning to slower numbers. King fumbled with a few lyrics, but he was patient and comfortable on guitar, bending his strings and picking out solo notes for a set list of hits that included "Rock Me Baby," "The Thrill is Gone," and "How Blue Can You Get." He also led a sing-along of "You Are on My Sunshine," and delighted locals by tacking on "The Saints Go Marching In."
King never dazzled on guitar—those years are gone and it's fantasy to imagine someone his age might fire through a set like he once did—but he nevertheless enchanted the audience with his residual spunk and musicianship. The blues is a cathartic and connective music, and King still succeeds in emoting the genre's sound in a way that audiences can feel. More impressive than his guitar play was his ability to sing. His status as a blues singer has often been overshadowed by his guitar play in his career, but his voice has perhaps endured better than his slowing finger work, as he belted a range of bluesy notes that time has not yet stolen from him. His vocal and instrumental contributions to the performance were intermittent, but his mere presence occupied so much of the space at the Civic that when he did play, his guitar filled the theater and his singular blues notes lingered in the air above all the other noise. There was a biographical pleasure in simply being a witness. At the end of a short show, King remained in his chair on stage and threw out silver guitar picks to an older crowd that rushed forward like teenagers at a Bieber concert. From beginning to end the room revolved around him. King has earned center-stage, and he holds court with grace and an ability that age has weathered, but not robbed His style, good health, and a tight familial band have helped him successfully tour late into life, and it might carry him a few more years yet.