Don’t let anybody fool you: Robert Johnson had it easy. Jimi Hendrix? Stevie Ray Vaughan? They had it soft. They may have departed too soon, but by leaving in their prime, they left a legacy that can never fade. Every time you put one of those gentlemen on your stereo, here they are, just the way you remember. They can’t do anything new, true, but they also can never disappoint. They’ve been frozen in amber, like a prehistoric mosquito.
Living legends are the ones who have it tough.
When B.B. King took the stage at the Palace Theatre on Thursday night, the air was thick with expectation. A disastrous gig in St. Louis earlier this month left many wondering if the reigning King of the Blues could still cut it. One co-worker of mine even predicted that the Palace show would be canceled as a result.
But there he was: 88 years-old and resplendent in his sparkly tuxedo jacket. He made his way to his chair, assisted by several tall younger men. The band—eight strong, including a horn section—churned away behind him. The audience, a not-quite-capacity house, was on its feet, your humble correspondent included. Albany loves B.B. King and B.B. King basked in the glow of that adoration as he took his seat and had his legendary guitar, Lucille, handed to him. After another moment of delicious anticipation, King made Lucille sing for the first time that evening. Yep. He’s still got it.
This isn’t to say that the evening wasn’t without flaws. The sound system was muddy for much of the evening. King’s levels appeared to be too high at first, causing every touch of the string to sound louder than the band. By contrast, the keyboardist—playing an array of instruments, including a very tasty Hammond B-3 (or a remarkable facsimile)—was too low in the mix at first, and could hardly be heard over the rest of the instruments. These problems were quickly ironed out, however, and the music was just too good to dismiss over a few technical glitches.
King appeared serene throughout the hour-long performance. He sat like a Blues Buddha, the calm at the center of a storm. While his band did much of the heavy lifting, King took his solos as he would, emphasizing quality over quantity. Like Count Basie, King said little, but what he said had weight. Each time he ran his left hand over Lucille’s neck, the licks dripped like honey from his fingers.
One of the primary criticisms of the St. Louis show was the sing-along of “You are my Sunshine.” Sure enough, only two numbers in, King played the familiar melody. The audience was way ahead of him, though, and many started singing right away. While the reviewer of the St. Louis show seemed baffled by this part of the performance, it seemed perfectly charming to me.
Once the set was well and truly going, King and his men started to cook. King kept his flame at a slow burn while the rest of the band turned up the heat. There were performances of classics like “The Thrill is Gone,” “Rock Me Baby,” and “Downhearted.”
It’s only after the simmering “Downhearted” that things fizzled to an anticlimax. The audience was on its feet. The love in the room was tangible. Now was the time to either take the final bow or dazzle the crowd with a much desired encore. King, alas, did neither.
He sat on the stage, surrounded by his handlers, and chatted with members of the audience while the band played on behind him. We waited on our feet. Surely this was all leading somewhere. Alas, it was not. After what seemed like an eternity, King bid us a final goodnight. By this point, several audience members have already elected to beat the traffic. Those who remained glance shyly at one another before shuffling up the aisle to the exit. The evening had been a success, but the ending was a disappointment. Still, who can deny a living legend a few eccentricities?
The show was opened by Rhett Tyler and Early Warning who played a brief but electrifying set. Tyler is an extraordinary guitarist of the Hendrix type. His solos were arresting and, at times, quite beautiful. At first, they faced an indifferent audience, but by the time they closed with a version of Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues,” they had won the crowd over. Tyler is definitely one to watch.
UPDATE: The spelling of Rhett Tyler’s name has been corrected.