Ten days ago, Mr. Riley B. “Blues Boy” celebrated his 86th birthday. He’s elderly, he’s infirm, but darn it, he can still sing and play the blues on his electric guitar, “Lucille”, better than most folks a third of his age. Yes, he has understandably slowed down, and he has to sit throughout the proceedings - but then, the old pre-WW2 blues singers sat down when they played anyway. Even so, this concert from the PBS “Soundstage” series, filmed in 2009, certainly serves as a prime example of the Blues Boy in his late-in-life prime.
As a matter of fact, the opener, “Everyday I Have The Blues”, finds him virtually as energetic and soulful as ever. One should not expect innovation or fresh approaches at this late date - he has long since made his most impactful contributions. But this is not simply an elderly icon going through the motions, but a compelling performer and viable entertainer who can still summon up the old fire and put on one heckuva show for his fans.
The songs are largely familiar. However, the Blind Lemon Jefferson standard, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”, was a recent addition to the B.B. King repertoire at the time of this performance, having served as the de facto title song to his 2008 CD, “One Kind Favor”. Since it is no secret that Jefferson was a seminal influence on the young Riley King - a fact he has always acknowledged - it’s quite a treat to hear him adapt the old song to his big-band-blues format. What may seem another lesser-known title, “Downhearted”, is actually a re-titling of B.B.’s classic “How Blue Can You Get”, the stop-time bridge of which is always an audience favorite.
As is the case with so many televised specials featuring performers “of a certain age”, the producers have decided to sprinkle in guest performances by younger, non-blues performers who they no doubt feel will bring their fan bases to the table, thus increasing ratings. Frankly, I find that a deplorable practice, particularly when the older performer is as famous and still highly skilled as B.B. King. He simply doesn’t need them. But the truth is, fortunately they do not cause irreparable harm to the overall quality of the program.
In fact, actor Terrence Howard may actually add to it. He informally trades verses with “B” on “I Need You So”, acquitting himself surprisingly eell as a blues balladeer somewhat on the order of King’s erstwhile touring partner, Bobby Bland. Howard (who released a CD of his own in 2008) gets to sing most of “ I Got Some Help I Don’t Need” by himself, with B.B. and the band. Howard and King display a marvelous rapport during some in-song dialogue.
Less successful is Solange Knowles (Beyonce’s younger sister) who joins B.B. for an under-developed version of his signature hit, “The Thrill Is Gone”. I’d like to hear her do this song about ten years from now, but her voice doesn’t yet have enough of a lived-in quality, and she’s weak on top. Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora (whose name King consistently mangles) tears off a few burning licks on “Nobody Loves Me But My Mother”, but B. is dissatisfied and switches to the uptempo “Let The Good Times Roll”. The two still fail to gel. The pairing works better when King reprises “the Thrill Is Gone,” this time handling the vocal chores himself, with Sambora playing an effective lead guitar.
B.B.’s band is fine throughout. They feature a full-bodied four-piece horn section that sounds like more. One does occasionally wish they were more prominent in the mix. The rhythm section cooks. B.B. and the band get into a downhome gospel groove on a rousing closer, yet another version of :”When The Saints Go Marching In”. And while I could happily live out my days without hearing that overworked song again, this group effort by B, Howard, Knowles, and Sambora is downright agreeable. It may not be the most important piece of art B.B. King has ever been involved with - “Live At The Regal” its not - but it will certainly set your toes to tapping.
In all, unless you are really turned off by the idea of B.B. King having to share the stage with guest artists (and I know for a fact some of you would be!), this is a very enjoyable hour with the Master.