Something that happened several years ago at a funky old Orange County nightclub had a lot to do with B.B. King being on hand Wednesday night to open a fancy new one.
About seven years ago, a young jazz-rock drummer named Michael Zanetis worked his way backstage during one of King's periodic concerts at the Golden Bear, the venerable, now-defunct pop showcase near the Huntington Beach pier, so he could bring a copy of his band's new record album to the headliner.
That was the start of a friendship that grew over the years as Zanetis and his wife, Denice, renewed acquaintance with the gracious bluesman at numerous gigs in Southern California and Las Vegas.
About a year ago, Zanetis decided to switch from creating music as a session player and record producer to presenting it as a club owner. With backing from 14 investors, he converted a large, vacant restaurant on the Dana Point waterfront into Michael's Supper Club.
"When I found out I had gotten the lease and it was a go here, there was no one (besides King) I would have considered for the opening act," Zanetis, 34, said between King's two shows Wednesday night.
Before coming to California, Zanetis, a compact man with a light, trim beard, had helped manage four Holiday Inns that his family operated in the Midwest. "After four or five years doing that, and 10 years in the record business, I'm kind of fusing the two here," he said.
If the inaugural booking at Michael's owes a debt to the Golden Bear, which had its roots in '60s counterculture, the opening-night tone was closer to bourgeois chic. King's early show in the 333-capacity club was a black-tie, $75-a-ticket benefit for the Dana Point Chamber of Commerce. The sold-out late show, open to the public at $25 a ticket, drew a less formal, but still nattily attired crowd that included only a handful of people under 30.
The audience watched King from long tables covered with mauve tablecloths. Overhead in what used to be a banquet room are five chandeliers shaped like upside-down Aztec pyramids. A suspended ceiling in the middle of the room is lined with mirrors and a double row of marquee-type lights. The floor is carpeted, and so is the 3-foot-high stage that stretches the length of the room. Windows on two sides of the club offer a view of an adjacent marina. Patrons who wanted to arrive early or linger after the show could find their way to an upstairs lounge and open-air oyster bar, or to the Reuben's restaurant that shares the main floor with the club's concert room.
In this sociable, comfortable, slickly appointed setting, King and his seven-man band put on a sociable, comfortable, show-bizzy performance. King's objective clearly was to offer light entertainment rather than to give a focused, deep-reaching account of the supremely emotional music that has made him an indispensable source and influence for so much of the worthwhile rock and blues music of the past 40 years.
King was a chatty, warm host who twice paused to lead the crowd in applause for the new club and its owner. But he spent more time joking about his great subject--the eternal friction and attraction between the sexes--than he did illuminating it with trenchant singing and guitar playing.
The show offered glimpses of what makes King great. Early on, his guitar solos were liberal and forceful. Toward the end of the 100-minute show, he sang with conviction and throaty power on an abbreviated "How Blue Can You Get?" It was enough to make it clear that, as he approaches his 63rd birthday, King's ability hasn't waned. But it is disappointing when a musician capable of making a deep and lasting impression settles for giving an audience an easygoing good time. King winds up his four-night stand at Michael's with sold-out shows tonight and Saturday.
The club's sound-system--two large JBL speakers hung above the stage--produced good, crisp sound that was kept at moderate volume in the intimate room.
Standing in his dressing room afterward, King admired a chocolate cake, shaped like his guitar, that the wife of one of Michael's bartenders baked for him between sets. This likeness of his famed guitar, "Lucille," featured a broken frosted string in honor of the guitar string he snapped during his early show. King said he will put in a good word for the new venue in musical circles. "I'll speak to my manager and my agents and tell them what a nice club it is," he said. "You'd be surprised how fast the word gets around. All the entertainers enjoy playing in a nice place."
Zanetis said he is aiming primarily for an over-25 audience. Upcoming bookings, with the average ticket price about $20, include a blend of country, jazz, rock oldies and middle-of-the-road pop. Booked through September are Jack Jones; Blood, Sweat & Tears; Ramsey Lewis; Earl Thomas Conley; Tammy Wynette, and Jerry Vale. Zanetis said he is also hoping to land some contemporary rock and blues acts, including Robert Cray, Lone Justice, the Fabulous Thunderbirds and the Atlanta Rhythm Section.
B.B. King plays at Michael's Supper Club, 24399 Dana Drive, Dana Point, through Saturday. Performances tonight: 8 and 10:30. Tickets: $25. Information: (714) 493-8100.