B.B. King posed the question of the night Saturday when he sang one of his signature songs: "How Blue Can You Get?"
In the first of two New Year's Eve shows at the Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim, King and Bobby "Blue" Bland both provided the traditional response in solid, sometimes eloquent sets, well stocked with classics of the genre. For them, how blue you can get depends on how much emotion you can generate in a song--and the answer for both was plenty.
For Millie Jackson, being blue has more to do with the profanely outrageous comic tradition of Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor than with the musical tradition of the other two stars on this triple bill.
How blue can you get? Well, by the end of her 55 minutes on stage, there was no question about which Jackson is really Bad. Like Michael, who is no relation, Millie made a point of grabbing at her crotch during an X-rated, bump-and-grind version of "Something You Can Feel." Actually, she took it a step further, getting comic mileage by grabbing at male targets in the audience.
Jackson wound up overdoing the saucy and scatological stuff. It would have been better to hear more of her gritty funk singing and ardor-filled soul balladry--and less of her salty rapping about male shortcomings and female survival tactics. She might have hit a workable balance if she had played it straight with her last number, "Love Is a Dangerous Game," rather than turning it into yet another rude spoken rap.
In these Sam Kinison days, dirty talk is cheap indeed, while singing voices like Jackson's are rare. She may have been breaking ground in the '70s with her raw comedy, but there is a greater need now for more moments such as her exciting improvisation at the end of "An Imitation of Love."
If brashness is Jackson's hallmark, Bland's is restraint. It served him well in a 40-minute performance in which his singing was often stirring enough to elicit testifying cries from the audience.
That old-fashioned response was probably prompted by some old-fashioned musical virtues. Bland had a crack, eight-piece backing band that moved deftly through rich, varied song arrangements. With full-bodied musical output such as that--featuring real horns and a real Hammond organ--one has to wonder why so many contemporary R&B singers settle for emaciated and phony-sounding production founded upon tinkling synthesizers and sound-alike computer rhythms.
Using understatement rather than big vocal gestures, Bland's singing consistently brought emotions into clear focus. Whether pleading for romance on the soul-flavored ballad "Share Your Love With Me," or suffering existential slings and arrows on "Stormy Monday," Bland sang with conviction and immediacy, and his refusal to grandstand added another fine quality: intimacy.
B.B. King made it a happy new year for anyone who loves to hear him play the guitar. In his previous county appearance, in August at Michael's Supper Club, King was content to be an entertainer, a talkative, gracious host rather than a musical dynamo. This time he came to make music.
The 90-minute set was crammed with liberal guitar solos in King's distinctive, clean-but-rough-edged style. Highlights included "You Know I Love You," rendered as a lovely, lyrical guitar ballad, and "Why I Sing the Blues," which found King skittering up and down the fret board in a playfully rocking performance.
King's singing was forceful, although he no longer has the impressive high range that he did 15 or 20 years ago. Perhaps he was limited by the sore throat that he said was bothering him.
King stuck to older material rather than play anything from his new album, "King of the Blues: 1989," and that was just as well. In a crowd-pleasing ending, he sang "The Thrill Is Gone," the 1970 hit that brought him to the attention of the rock generation, then swung into a funky reading of "When Love Comes to Town," the new number from U2's "Rattle & Hum" album that features King in a vibrant guest shot.