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B.B. King gives Vegas a voice with his blues

Foreclosures and unemployment are up in Sin City, but the King of the Blues has a new club where residents and visitors can cry in their beer.

December 20, 2009|By Richard Abowitz

As Garth Brooks' much-hyped return dominated the news, and all things Vegas focused on the opening of CityCenter, a little blues club and restaurant had a celebration at the Mirage last weekend.

A VIP line formed stretching down a hallway an hour before the doors opened for the invitation-only grand opening of the latest, fifth outpost of B.B. King's Blues Club. The night promised to be special as the legendary performer would cap it by taking the tiny stage in the small club -- laid out with a restaurant, dance floor and a bar in the back -- to lead an all-star jam.

As the line grew, King reflected on his career and the genre in a VIP suite, interrupting himself to check out the scene. He conceded, "Forgive me. I can still look. I have a roving eye."

King also won't gloss things, Vegas style. So, he was frank when a local reporter asked him if he can still perform as he has done in decades past. King, 84, gently explained that he can't do everything he did years ago and asked if she wanted him to lie about it.

Until now the Vegas connections between King and his hometown of three decades have had surprisingly few intersections. That is largely because for most of those years he has been on the road.

King is an artist whose career almost parallels the life of Las Vegas. When he started recording blues in 1949, the Flamingo was open and the Desert Inn was soon to open. Yet, despite how modest Vegas was back then, King says now that he could never have imagined himself having anything as grand as a club in Vegas.

King has always sung the blues, of course. Now, Las Vegas, a city built on unrelenting optimism, faces times when the blues fit the mood of a town facing a tourism meltdown, a foreclosure crisis and record unemployment.

"The thrill is gone / The thrill is gone away," King sang that night. The blues are about honesty and Las Vegas isn't so much.

King is seen locally almost exclusively when he plays here while on tour. And King still spends much of the year touring. His next show near Vegas is Dec. 26 at Star of the Desert Arena in Primm, Nev. Two days later he has a show in Boulder, Colo., then the next night in Beaver Creek. "I'm glad I'm finally going to have my own place to play when I am home," he said.

His continued touring, he explained, has been a necessity in promoting the blues. "Since I got older, the one thing that has changed is that I got a better ride now. Blues is not played on the radio. You have to take it to people. That has always been true with blues."

Despite playing in the U.S. gambling capital, King plays less blackjack now: "These days I can't even count to 20. Music is my primary thing today and one of the things I have to say about this city is that there is more to offer in the way of music -- and I have played 90 countries around the world -- than any city in the world, including New York."

Almost inevitably, before he took the stage, the grand opening centered on an all-star jam. Guests included Robert Cray, Buddy Guy, Lee Ritenour and Willie Nelson, who serenaded King with "Always on My Mind." Heading up the house band for this night was guitarist Steve Cropper, who noted before the show that there had been no rehearsals. Cropper wryly offered of King's influence on younger players: "If he taught anything to young guitar players, it is this trill that he does that is very simple. And all these young blues players want to be B.B. King. And they obviously can't sing like him. But they all play his lick."

The next night after all the VIPs were gone, a young guitar player was on stage playing that lick on "Let the Good Times Roll" for a crowded bar and full restaurant of regular tourists. These days lots of folks have the blues, and that means Vegas is ready and eager to provide the soundtrack.

calendar@latimes.com

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