LIVE: B.B. King @ the Palace Theatre, 4/17/14

Not necessarily a review by Fred Rudofsky

In a music discussion, many would likely equate a reference to “The King” to Elvis Presley.

Not I – ever since I was in high school, “The King” has been the King of the Blues, B.B. King, my favorite musician. I own dozens of his albums; posters of him deck the walls of my home and classroom. I have seen B.B. King in concert over 20 times. I have even met him four times; once, I even got to talk with King for a half hour on his tour bus about music, women, radio, education and the state of the world. When I told him after a show in Albany that an excerpt from his autobiography, “Blues All Around Me,” had been featured on a recent NYS Comprehensive English Regents Exam, King was stunned, but quickly joked to one of his bandmates, “Hey, did New York State pay me for that?”

Yet I cannot help invoking Elvis when I think of B.B. King’s erratic, disquieting performance at the Palace Theatre last Thurday night (April 17). It was as tragic as a scene from “King Lear,” as surreal as dialogue from an Ionesco play or images in a Fellini film. It was the blues without the catharsis of the blues. It made me think of how Elvis must have been in twilight of his career, the nadir of his health, which was sadly the case in his early 40s. Presley was surrounded by handlers who did not have his well being and dignity at the top of their priorities. At 88, with over 15,000 performances in his career, the King of the Blues deserves better, too.

I wonder, “Who is taking care of the King?”

Earlier this month, B.B. King, who has suffered from diabetes but managed it fairly well for more than two decades, played by all accounts an abysmal show in St. Louis – he subsequently apologized to his fans, and his management team tactfully announced, “The combination of the rigors of the very long drive and high blood sugar due to his medication error resulted in a performance that did not match Mr. King’s usual standard of excellence.” Sadly, the reviews of that St. Louis performance two weeks ago could apply almost word for word to Thursday’s concert in Albany, and it would not surprise me if King’s management offered a similar explanation to fans in the Capital Region in the next few days.

I wonder, “Who is taking care of the King?”

B.B. King, who has garnered more accolades than just about any recording artist on the planet, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Kennedy Center Honor, is one of the most humble and self-effacing men you will ever meet. Yet he is also intensely proud of being a touring bluesman – “paying the cost to be the boss” – and very loyal to his bandmates who have been with him to play theaters, concert halls and festivals in dozens of countries.

At the Palace Theatre, it was obvious from the fretful looks of his veteran eight-piece band that they were concerned about B.B. – to the point of distraction – throughout their 100 minutes on stage. It was heart-breaking to hear King perform meandering fragments of nine songs, to see him sing in discomfort, to witness some intoxicated or callous audience members badger him for songs or just plain heckle him for a guitar pick or some souvenir.

Occasionally, King summoned magic from his fingers and Lucille, his beloved guitar, responded with that soulful, trademark vibrato that sounds like the healing voice of the universe. Sadly, even that joyous sound could not set the evening right. The concert often felt like a hasty sound check, light years from the transcendent performances that had been synonymous with B.B. King whenever he and his band had previously played the Palace Theatre.

I wonder, “Who is taking care of the King?”

What physician would allow a patient with a serious pre-existing condition like diabetes – along with arthritis of the knees and back, and substantial hearing loss – to risk his mental and physical health further by touring from coast to coast for almost thirty shows through this spring and summer? I wonder. What management team, entrusted to promote and protect their client’s image, would allow him to garner a string of negative performance reviews for the first time in his career? I wonder.

At the end of the show, the King of the Blues bid the Palace a bittersweet farewell: “God bless all of you… I could use a few prayers myself, too!”

There is no need to wonder: you’re in my prayers, B.B. That will never change, my friend.

Steve Barnes’ review at The Times Union
Alexander M. Stern’s review at Metroland
Excerpt from David Singer’s review at The Daily Gazette: “The band followed with a smooth Chicago-shuffle, King playing a verse on his guitar — his unique, unmatched sound — before handing it off to the keyboards. He floated a few riffs during the other instrument solos, then took over again, sketching his ideas with a few spare notes that somehow communicate his ideas in full. He is wonderfully simple in his picking and singing, something he has mastered over 60-plus years, with a style no one uses today. King didn’t play chords with the rhythm section during the horn solos — he never really does. Instead he accompanied the solos with single notes. He played the low-key, swinging ‘You Are My Sunshine,’ immediately recognizable from his clean, lyrical guitar playing. Then came the required ‘The Thrill Is Gone.’ The horn section punched sharply here — these were not young guys — while King threw out some quick, bending notes as others took solos. He only sang two verses; it would have been nice to hear more of this song.”

  1. Rudy says

    Truly a sad state of affairs. I am also a big fan of BB’s. It is such a disservice to him and his fans to have him out like this. Like you, I wish the King of the Blues well and hope he can retire in good health, rather than be on the road like this.

  2. Stan Johnson says

    I prefer to remember an excellent SPAC show in late summer 1972, I believe, when it was still possible to go all the way from the lawn up to the front of the stage. In that show BB played a lot of Lucille in every song and everyone just stood with their mouths open. We are all a long way down the road from then.

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