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One more time: B.B. King clowns around at the Palace.

photo:Joe Putrock

Shut Up and Play Your Guitar
By Glenn Weiser

B.B. King

Palace Theater, Jan. 28

He never did learn to sing and play guitar at the same time, or play chords—basic skills that even most fledgling pickers have. And his lead playing, honed while he spun records in the control room of a Memphis radio station, suffered from sloppy timing at first. But eventually his guitar chops caught up with his powerhouse, gospel-trained singing, and the Mississippi-born Riley “B.B.” King rose to become the most successful performer in the history of the blues. Last September he turned 80, and says the world tour that brought him to a nearly-sold-out Palace Theater will be his last. Even though King can still belt out his throat-busting high octaves and play his signature riffs almost as well as ever, his show here was annoyingly long on shtick and short on the music that made him famous.

King’s band—consisting of leader James Bolden on trumpet, Melvin Jackson and (King’s nephew) Walter King on saxophones, Charlie Dennis on guitar, Earnest VanTreese on keyboards, Reggie Richards on bass, and Caleb Enfrey on drums—warmed up the crowd with two generic instrumentals, a funk-groove minor-key blues, and a slow blues, that allowed each man in the horn line to solo in the limelight, including Dennis, an old-school player who used his thumb and index finger rather than a flatpick.

Then a chair was brought out, and the portly King, attired in a tuxedo with gold bamboo leaves emblazoned on his jacket, lumbered out to center stage and sat down. With the band in uptempo mode, he began playing his celebrated black hollow-body Gibson as only he can. Lucille’s tone was as big as her owner, and King’s lyrical phrasing was marked by a powerful attack achieved using mostly downstrokes with his pick.

But after only a few minutes of blues bliss, the band dropped down to a whisper, and King clowned, joking about women, old age, and Viagra. In fairness, he is a master entertainer, so the audience ate it up. But that set the pattern for the night: a song or two, banter, another song or two, more banter. “The papers are gonna kill me—they’re going to say I talked all night,” he admitted. Still, amid all the patter he ably delivered a string of his best-known tunes, including “Rock Me Baby,” “Why I Sing the Blues,” “Bad Case of Love,“ “When Love Comes to Town,” and “Key to the Highway.” More uncharacteristic was a version of the 1940 country classic “You Are My Sunshine.” Fast tempos alternated with slow, and he wisely mixed in the less-common eight-bar blues songs to prevent the repetitiousness that can result from an entire show of 12-bar tunes.

Toward the end of the nearly two-hour performance, King called out Dave Letterman’s guitarist, Felicia Collins, who, in a nod to New Orleans, joined him on “When the Saints Go Marching In.” In her solo, though, she fell back on shopworn rockabilly licks rather than the Dixieland-inspired horn lines you might have hoped for. She remained onstage to play on the closer, King’s 1969 hit “The Thrill Is Gone.”

Opening was the Brian Kaplan Band, a straight-ahead rock group who musically were somewhat incongruous with the rest of the show, and Albany’s own Ernie Williams and the Wildcats. The surprise of the evening was the Williams’ incandescent young lead guitarist, Jason Ladanye, whose show-stealing fretboard prestidigitation smoked every other six-string slinger on the bill, including King himself. As one sun sets, another rises.


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