How Old Is 80?

B.B. King’s 80th Birthday Celebration Tour

At the Arlington Theatre, Tuesday, May 16.

Reviewed by Matt Kettmann

The life of a musical legend goes through many acts, but the last act is the one by which people will remember him. So, when B.B. King rolled in on his 80th birthday celebration tour last week, there was some trepidation in the crowd at the Arlington. Devout fans wondered, had King passed his prime, or was he still the lyric-belting, guitar-picking bluesman they’d come to love over the decades?

At first, when the tuxedo-wearing, eight-man B.B. King Blues Band went through two full instrumentals with extensive brass solos, it seemed like stalling. Might this be a night of backup-band-flash to compensate for headliner fatigue? But then B.B. emerged, beaming as widely as ever, his shiny silver coat matching his graying hair, and the golden reflections of Lucille lighting up the historic walls of the Arlington. King gave a little waggle-dance in his stool, made some jokes about the fact that he plays sitting down these days, and began ripping into his axe. His hand wafted over the strings, as if he were savoring the smell of a good stew.

And good stewin’ is what the next hour-and-a-half was about — a tasty blend of jazzy blues, bluesy blues, funny lyrics, loving lyrics, and down-home storytelling/wisdom-spitting from an elder we should all listen to more. In the intervals between such numbers as “Why I Sing the Blues,” “Downhearted,” “Bluesman (Understand),” and “Rock Me Baby,” King explained the tyranny of manhood (having the urge to check out every woman who walks by) and his current medical team (Dr. Viagra, Nurse Levitra, and Dr. Cialis). He also joked that the reviewers were probably going to kill him for talking so much, yet steadfastly vowed to “risk another minute” of his career by doing it anyway. King’s tone — punctuated by constant double thumbs-ups and kisses into the microphone — was playful, sexy, and genuinely interesting, and the audience responded to his desire to talk with well deserved patience, as we all knew that the King’s words were nuggets of hard-earned truth.

By the end of the evening, King had played “The Thrill Is Gone,” had some panties thrown at him, gotten his band to take dance solos, and pounded two drinks in telltale plastic red liquor cups (were they beers?). The emotional peak of the evening occurred during “All Over Again.” When King sang “I’m gonna roam this mean old highway ’til the day I die,” he looked into the crowd and added, “I’m gonna do this ’til the day I die, folks.” It was earnest, and with such a young, vivid heart, we’d better prepare for the 90th birthday tour, too.

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