I just heard that BB King passed away last night. I happened to go for his concert in Washington, DC, in July, 2014. This is what I wrote at that time…
It was March 2014 when I first heard that the king was coming into town. Having been a fervent admirer of his works for a very long time, but not having seen him in person, I thought that I should make the effort to meet him at least this one time. Here was a man who had given so many years of his life to the cause, and it was time to pay homage.
On July 17th, 2014, on an unusually cool summer evening, my friend and I boarded a Metro train at Shady Grove station to head out to the capital city of Washington DC to see the king. I was looking forward to this, and in a moment of irrational optimism, I even picked up a pen from the kitchen counter before I left home – in the hope that I could get an autograph on the ticket that I had printed at home. But, at the same time, I also had this nagging concern at the back of my mind about the well-being of the king. After all he was 88 years old, and he was suffering from diabetes. He had looked his age in recent times, and when he addressed his subjects recently, it was always from from a lonely chair on which he sat with his friend Lucille. But, in spite of his age, the king had always brought a smile to my face.
That evening in Washington DC was a somewhat sad one. I was probably witnessing history in some way. It was not the B. B. King, the King of the Blues, the guitar god, that I had known, who was on stage. It was not the performance that I had been expecting. It was as if I was witnessing a passing, and it might have been the opportunity for B. B. King admirers in the DC area to pay their respects to the great man for the last time before he set sail into the sunset.
One might have suspected that all was not right when the program started with a long set by the warm-up band, and an extended intermission that lasted more than half an hour. Then the B. B. King Band came on and played a piece all by itself for about 10 minutes. B.B. King only appeared on the stage after all that was over. When the King shuffled on to the stage (with some difficulty and with the help of some other folks) the audience rose from their seats and applauded wildly in honor of the Man. There was a sense of anticipation in the air. But one began to suspect that things were not right during the first song that was played after he sat down. It was essentially an introduction to the members of the band. BB talked most of the time. Lucille, his guitar, sat on his lap with the strings untouched for the most part. In fact there was another lead guitarist featured in the band who was picking up the slack for BB. BB rambled along, talking to the audience in the front row most of the time. He appeared to be very distracted. The one or two occasions on which he actually played his guitar, it did not sound quite right, and perhaps BB also realized this and even stopped trying. The rest of the band played on respectfully, as well as they could. They were superb.
I think there were only four songs that BB “performed” during his set. One of the songs was a simple sing-along that he did with the audience. The song was “You are my Sunshine“. His mind seemed to wander during the song and I had some difficulty making out what he was saying. He did acknowledge that at his age he was just happy to be where he was at. He said he was enjoying his time with the audience. But too often he would wander off, again and again, and even try to start more conversations with people in the audience. He was slowly losing the rest of his audience as the performance went on.
But there were also those occasional spots of brilliance during the show. BB would summon all his focus and energies to deliver the chorus lines for The Thrill is Gone or Rock me Baby. As his voice rose with confidence, the superb horn section and the piano would also rise to meet the challenge, and there was this wonderful crescendo of beautiful sound that arose from the stage. He could certainly still hit the notes with power like the B.B. King of old. There were moments in time during the concert during which all my senses were heightened in anticipation of what could come next. But such instances where infrequent. And what could have been never happened that evening. BB could not sustain his energy.
As the evening went on the audience must have slowly realized what was happening on stage. Most people were content to let BB ramble along in his own way because of the respect they had for the Man. But there were also some who were impatient. BB must have realized what was going on, and I suspect that it was on a couple of these occasions that he actually made the effort to deliver a performance. But people also started leaving before the end of the concert.
As the band went into its encore at the end of the set, B. B. King was in his own world. He would not cooperate as the handlers came on stage to try to get him off. The encore went on and on as people crowded to the front to get a closer view of the Man and to take pictures. My friend and I departed as this scene continued to play out on the stage. It was getting late and it was time for us to take the Metro back to our quiet suburban lives.
During the evening I also heard the news that a commercial jet had just been shot out of the sky, and that Israel had started its ground offensive into the Gaza strip. It was a very sad evening indeed. The thrill is gone.