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Pop Music / WEEKEND REVIEWS

B.B. King Shows He Still Has a Fresh, Willing Spirit

August 19, 1996|STEVE APPLEFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Don't lose faith in your pop music icons. At least not in B.B. King, who can still throw enough of a twist into his blues to demonstrate the greatness well within his grasp.

At the Greek Theatre on Saturday, King seemed to find renewed spirit, sharing the stage with the Neville Brothers, Delbert McClinton and Taj Mahal at the fifth annual Blues Music Festival. His headlining set was far from the admittedly fun but predictable hit parades of too many recent King shows.

When the singer-guitarist emerged on stage with his massive B.B. King Orchestra, a 12-man army of rhythm and horn players, it looked like more of the same from the magnanimous bluesman. But if some of the usual hits were still there, King avoided a rerun with a change in delivery.

Midway through his 90-minute set, King dismissed his horn section as he and his core backing quintet took seats on stage. "Just because we're sitting doesn't mean we're tired," King joked. With that, King brought his stinging lead lines to often subtle, less familiar material, and never leaned on his band to fill in the empty spaces.

With nimble playing fingers and a voice that has only grown deeper and more anguished, King sang, "If you've ever been mistreated, then you know what I'm talkin' about," with enough emotional presence to suggest the man still means it.

The Neville Brothers brought a rich, eclectic mix to the Greek, playing music that traveled from bluesy to tropical, with occasional epic balladry led by singer Aaron Neville's angelic pipes.

The Nevilles soon brought opening act Taj Mahal back out for some wicked folk blues on "Born Under a Bad Sign." The folk-blues troubadour provided some added momentum, picking at a red hollow-body guitar in his white fedora.

If the Nevilles' song material wasn't always so exceptional, it was at least embraced within a warm, seething groove, drawing excited audience participation with little effort. At one point, R&B veteran Bill Withers seemed to be speaking for much of the crowd when he ran out on stage only to give Aaron Neville a hug.

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