Photos by Mark C. Austin
B.B. King deserves a break. If the genial Buddha of the blues, now 83, would rather spend the bulk of his two-hour set bantering with the sold-out crowd about Viagra (groan) and the wayward ways of womankind instead of, you know, singing and playing, he's earned it. And besides, he's a pretty funny guy.
"You look 30!" one audience member cried out shortly after King went onstage Saturday night around 9:20 p.m.
"You need new glasses," the King shot back.
King had the luxury of acting as comic relief in his own show because he relies on his superlative band - "'bout half of 'em are from Texas anyway," he said near the end - to handle the musical heavy lifting, and did they ever. From the opening notes of a speedy jazz shuffle warmup to the final tear-stained chords of "The Thrill Is Gone," they hit all their marks with consistently engaging, exuberant solos and lockstep precision. To use the jazz term, they cooked.
Luckily, King's hamming it up didn't preclude the octagenarian from getting around to the blues (eventually). His voice in fine fettle, he can still sell the pain of "I Need You So" or joy of "Let the Good Times Roll" - done as a sharp Kansas City-style jump - like few others. The slow, deliberate "Key to the Highway," punctuated by the spine-tickling blurts from King's trusty guitar Lucille, froze the hourglass altogether; House of Blues might as well have been the Eldorado Ballroom on one of King's first visits to Houston in the early 1950s.
King introduced Memphis Slim's "Every Day I Have the Blues" as the "blues singer's national anthem" - here Aftermath was thinking it was "Stormy Monday" or perhaps "Sweet Home Chicago" - noting he didn't think he should record it after hearing Count Basie and Joe Williams' version. However, "he's been dead long enough," King noted. True to Basie's form, the song was another brisk Kansas City shuffle, distinguished by stabbing horns and Artis Vantrice's vivid bordello keyboards.
Unlike others of his generation - Willie Nelson, ahem - King has no compunctions about inserting new material into his sets, although Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" (a standout from King's excellent new album One Kind Favor) isn't exactly new. Unfortunately, Aftermath only saw the end - some mighty funky bass for a Blind Lemon song - because he chose that moment to take a smoke break. On the balcony, he was treated to the sight of a woman air-humping her girlfriend ("But I don't wanna get divorced!") and some overheated frat boy attempting to get a House of Blues security staffer's attention by yelling "Hey! Al-Qaeda!"
Back inside, the band did "When Love Comes to Town" as a high-energy Sun Records rock and roller, which Aftermath supposes is what Bono was aiming for when he wrote it (or should have been, at least). A sweet "You Are My Sunshine," went out to the ladies, before a very, very long story that ended in a Viagra joke. "I may not be as good now as I used to be," King said, "but I'm as good once as any man could be." Isn't that a Toby Keith line?
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King's charisma is so great he can get away with such cringe-inducing banter, but all was forgiven the minute he hit into "The Thrill Is Gone." He's still got plenty of that old blues magic in his fingers, and Lucille's blunt, empained bleats were especially on point. The song is as sad and empty a blues as you're ever gonna find, but the guitar is fighting, not surrendering; the horns were prodding, not cowering. A few more punchy chords and crooked runs, and the music was gone.
The thrill, of course, lingered long after. - Chris Gray