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Still King

In the sleepy Mississippi Delta towns of Indianola and Itta Bena, near where the blues was born, the cafes serve a regional specialty called a floating cheeseburger. It seems like a simple thing -- just a cheeseburger buried in a bowl of chili -- but once you've had one, you remember the moment for the rest of your life.

Watching B.B. King, who's from that land of the floating burger, perform is similarly unforgettable. The man's been at his job for a long time, and his act and his orchestra are polished like a diamond. You could, I suppose, call King just another Mississippi Delta guitar player. Or you could, as they have for two decades on the campus of Yale University, call him Dr. King -- Doctor of Music, one of the greatest performers to ever walk out on a stage. Houston's own Milton Hopkins will tell you that working for King is a fun job, though it can sure be tough at first. When Hopkins was hired by King as a rhythm guitar player, he was issued a 600-page songbook and informed that his probationary period was over when he had every note in the volume memorized. After that, it was just makin' 'em dance -- which few do as well as (and none do better than) the man from Sunflower County, Mississippi.

When the most famous blues guitar players in the world -- Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Buddy Guy, Jimmie Vaughan, Bonnie Raitt -- gathered in Austin two years ago to pay tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan, King's performance was the pinnacle of a night of highlights. On the recently released CD from that emotion-charged evening, there's never a doubt, even with this wall of guitars, who's standing at the front when Lucille is ringing like a silver bell.

Heck, King's so famous that even his instrument is better known than most musicians. Mention the name Lucille to anyone even faintly serious about the art of the guitar, and they'll tell you of the night King charged into a burning nightclub to save a Gibson ES that was the best guitar he'd ever owned. After the rescue, he dubbed the ax Lucille; since then, his guitars have always been Gibsons, and they've always been named Lucille.

King has gone through a number of Lucilles by now; in some ways, he's following a family tradition with that. His grandfather played slide guitar around the Delta while King was growing up in the '20s and '30s, and both of his parents were locally renowned vocalists. It's the sort of genealogy that makes it possible to honestly say that King has been a musician all of his life. By the mid-1940s, he was a full-fledged Beale Streeter, playing the parks and sidewalks of Memphis with fellow legends-in-the-making Johnny Ace and Bobby "Blue" Bland. And in the decades since, he's moved as consistently and implacably as a glacier toward near-universal acknowledgment as far more than just a great blues picker. B.B. King, to put it mildly, is one of the greatest guitar players who has ever lived -- and oh yeah, he'll make you dance.

-- Jim Sherman

B.B. King performs at 8 p.m. Friday, February 21, at the Houston Arena Theatre, 7324 Southwest Freeway. Sold out. Bobby "Blue" Bland opens. For info, call 988-1020.

Mary Chapin Carpenter -- Mary Chapin Carpenter isn't what you'd call a musical innovator. Her hybridized folk-rock and Nashville pop is soft without being gooey, an unadventurous formula that's unlikely to turn any heads. But the relatively timid musical statements serve their purpose, which is to stand in the background while the lyrics -- sung with believable sincerity, if not a hell of a lot of range -- put distance between Carpenter and the pack of Nashville songstresses wallowing in her wake. It's her talent with words that's helped the Princeton-born, Brown-educated Carpenter sell eight million records and shovel in five Grammys and two Country Music Association Awards since her 1987 debut. And while that many committee honors on one resume usually suggests a lowest common denominator appeal, Carpenter's latest, A Place in the World, shows the singer sounding more and more like her own crookedly smiling self, and less and less like anyone's package. At the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo at the Astrodome Friday, February 21. Music follows the rodeo action, which begins at 7 p.m. With Patty Loveless and Kathy Mattea. Tickets are $10. 791-9000. (Brad Tyer)

Iris DeMent -- With the glut of women popsters on parade these days, it's hard to weed the substantial from the slick. Iris DeMent is among the substantial, but because of her relatively recent emergence, she may have to wait awhile to push through the ranks. Still, public appreciation of her talent will eventually catch up to the levels she's long enjoyed among her singer/songwriter peers. The most successful in DeMent's field play off their strengths -- a soul-baring introspection, the ability to convey simple truths, a compositional knack, a golden throat, righteous anger, whatever. DeMent has all those tools, and no noticeable weaknesses to avoid. In particular, her scathing songs of social ills have the power and penetration of early Dylan without an ounce of self-indulgence. This may be your last chance to catch DeMent any place smaller than Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. At Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue, at 8 p.m. Wednesday, February 26. Tickets are $15, $17 and $19. 869-TICS. (Bob Burtman

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