Music review: B.B. King at Birchmere

By Mike Joyce
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 2, 2011; 9:58 PM

B.B. King said he still performs around the world because his young great-granddaughter "loves money." But not a soul in the packed house at the Birchmere on Saturday night was buying it. The 85-year-old blues legend was having far too much fun, after all, seated center stage with guitar Lucille on his lap, kicking off the new year with a two-hour concert bracketed by boisterous standing ovations. For King, the thrill of playing for an appreciative crowd clearly isn't gone - it's not even faded.

There was a time when the Mississippi native and his horn-powered band would run through a collection of hits in rapid succession, as if their tour buses were double-parked. But no more. Now King's concerts are strictly a casual affair, relaxed and remarkably intimate, even in large spaces.

Chatting between tunes, King recalled an early encounter with Willie Nelson ("Fell in love with the man, and I ain't gay yet"), gave thanks for the boost he receives on the road from a medical team headed up by "Doctor Viagra," and playfully tried to coax a smile from one somber bandmate ("Show me the teeth you've got left"). Sure, King rambled on now and then - at one point the audience tried to disabuse him of the notion that actor Andy Griffith had passed away. But no one seemed to mind. He'd get back on track soon enough, hoist Lucille a notch, then vigorously revive an old hit ("Everybody Wants to Know Why I Sing the Blues," "Rock Me Baby") or soulfully cover a personal favorite ("Key to the Highway" and Nelson's "Night Life").

"Don't ever get to be my age," the bluesman cautioned after briefly forgetting a lyric. Flubs didn't matter much, though. He could always rely on Lucille to compensate, with her fluttering vibrato, octave slides and trademark mix of major and minor riffs. King was in good voice, too. He bellowed when a line such as "I got a mind to give up living and go shopping instead" demanded it, and crooned when the mood shifted to romantic ballads and a purposely clunky, singalong rendition of "You Are My Sunshine."

Of course, listening to King play now, it's impossible to mistake his influence on generations of blues and rock guitarists. He's always expressed his admiration for their technical proficiency. But truth is, he can say more with a few notes located within reach of one hand position than most of his fret-burning disciples can while navigating the entire guitar neck. During one tune, in fact, King relied on just a single piercing tone to get his point across, sustaining it with one finger while dreamily resting his head in the palm of his other hand, as if in thrall to the sound of Lucille's voice. (King didn't introduce Lucille; he didn't have to. Prior to the concert, fans with cellphone cameras lined up in front of the stage to snap photos of the world's most famous axe.)

No, not even after some 15,000 performances can King conceal the enjoyment he derives from being onstage. He still gets his kicks celebrating the fundamental elements of his style - those sinuous T-Bone Walker riffs and blasting jump band sonics, for starters. And his band of genuine road warriors had no problem evoking the requisite atmospherics, right down to the inevitable finale: "The Thrill Is Gone" - a minor key classic and major league crowd-pleaser.

Joyce is a freelance writer.

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