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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