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Time Is on B.B. King's Side : Folksy, Gracious Bluesman Defies the Years, Honors Late Greats in Santa Ana Concert

January 14, 1993|MIKE BOEHM

All this rain can lead to morbid thoughts. So can the recent mortality rate for beloved and influential performing artists.

Dizzy Gillespie and Rudolf Nureyev died on the same day, just over a week ago. It was hard not to think of them as B.B. King arrived in Orange County Tuesday night, his personal clock reading 67 years and ticking. Anticipating the show, one couldn't help having the gloomy thought creep in that King is another front-page obituary waiting to happen.

One also couldn't help thinking about Albert King, B.B.'s fellow bluesman and fellow townsman (though not a relative) from Indianola, Miss. Albert, only two years B.B.'s senior, died Dec. 21, eight days after playing the last concert of his life at the Rhythm Cafe in Santa Ana--the same stage where B.B. arrived after another day of rain.

Even under customary California sunshine, and even during months when the front page is filled only with the usual bad news and not tidings of great artists dying, there's a certain dismal accounting that takes place when esteemed performers have reached a certain age.

With excellent musicians in their youth or middle years, the only question is whether they'll have a good night or a bad one, whether they'll show passion and inspiration, or a lack of energy and spark.

If the verdict is bad, you write it off as just a bad night, and hope for better next time. When the calendar reads 67, the stakes seem higher. Instead of a routine aesthetic judgment, a review becomes a palm reading with an eye on the life line. A bad night isn't a bad night. It's a sign of diminished powers. A good night reassures you that time is being held at bay. But for how long?

Well, never mind for how long.

The important thing about B.B. King's early show Tuesday was that time was held at bay for the 75 minutes he was on stage. Who knows what's going to happen to him next month or next year or next century? Who knows what's going to happen to the rest of us who were there? At least for a while, we could forget bad news and bad weather, and enjoy a performer capable of setting aside gloom for a while and replacing it with pleasure.

King was fully himself, and it's an expansive self. He was gracious and amusing, folksy and regal. His broad, pliant face was in constant motion, forming expressions of pleasure or concentration in keeping with the music's flow. Most of all, he was in command of a varied and definitive blues repertoire that has been well-documented in the recent, 77-song boxed CD set, "King of the Blues."

King sang with plenty of power, riding easily over his horn-driven band. There was some extra huskiness in his voice, the only sign of intruding age. For a man of large girth, he moved easily and nimbly, sort of like Jackie Gleason, though not quite so balletic or histrionic.

King played a lot of guitar, with unflagging force or finesse, as the moment dictated. At one point in a fine version of his dire classic, "The Thrill Is Gone," King chopped out a sharp-edged chord that sounded like the blow that causes the wound, then slid into a down-the-neck groan that sounded like the first pulsation of pain shooting from the gash.

But the mood was mostly light. Leading into "Darlin' You Know I Love You," King summoned soft, sweet sustained notes, thickened with his distinctive vibrato tone. His playing, which underscored the melody's passing kinship to "Georgia on My Mind," drew a big smile from rhythm guitarist Leon Warren, a talented, veteran player whose furrowed brow and typically heavy-lidded, impassive look leads one to suspect he doesn't grin often.

Few band leaders interact more closely with their players than King does with his impeccably sharp, eight-man unit. There was a good deal of clowning, including some slapstick dancing and other byplay, but there also was an element of ritual: Most solos by band members--and King gave them all room to show off--ended with vassal-and-lord bowing deeply to each other in a show of mutual respect and appreciation.

King was just as gracious with an audience that rewarded him with a standing ovation before he had played or sung a note. In a long finale that sandwiched much funky band vamping around a surging "When Love Comes to Town," King walked the stage apron, shaking hands, bestowing autographs on LP covers and menus that were thrust his way, and getting bussed by a woman who leaped on stage.

Finally, with the slow flourishes of a monarch bestowing gifts on his subjects, King tossed guitar picks, then a gold chain and lapel pin he'd been wearing, to the audience. All the while, saxophonist Melvin Jackson kept up a yelping, manic fanfare of praise in a voice that was part Flavor Flav, part Speedy Gonzalez, and part Van Earl Wright: "B-B-B-Bee . . . the one and only B.B. King . . . Go hey, go hey, go hey!"

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