THE ALBUM -- B.B. King, "Now Appearing at Ole Miss," MCA Records (MCA 2-8016).; THE SHOW -- At the Carter Barron Amphitheater, this Saturday at 8.
Show business, like no business I know, seems to spawn ill-fated, short-lived romances. But one show-biz marriage that's still going strong after nearly 30 years is the one between B.B. King and his big, red, hollow-body Gibson guitar, Lucille.
The theme of busted-up relationships provides much of the grist for King's blues mill, as evidenced by his latest album, "Now Appearing at Ole Miss," a two-record set recorded during a concert last year at the University of Mississippi. That he's been able to tread this familiar ground for so long and maintain top form is due not only to his large talent, but also to the sense of humor and irony that characterizes the best of the blues -- as on a song that complains, "Nobody loves me but my mother, and she might be jiving, too."
Traditionally, the best of the blues means 12-bar, three-chord songs, which "Now Appearing" serves up in liberal doses and varying moods: "Caldonia" (fast and bouncy, with nice leads by baritone sax player Edgar Synigal and trombonist Steve Sherard), "When I'm Wrong" (a slow, smoldering instrumental showcasing King), "I Got Some Outside Help" and a 14-minute medley of four blues standards.
King wisely intersperses the program with a few tunes that break out of the mold -- the beautiful ballad "Hold On," "Darlin' You Know I Love You," and a disco-tinged, Sam and Dave-ish number called "Never Make a Move Too Soon," which features some exciting tenor sax work by Hilton C. Joseph.
While B.B. is renowned and frequently awarded for his ability as a guitarist, he rarely receives credit for being a first-rate blues singer. At several points on this album, his voice outwails ol' Lucille. King possesses both the vocal and the emotional range to handle the bluest lyrics ("All your affection is gone, baby, and your love is growin' cold") as skilfully as he belts out a semi-comic verse about an unfaithful woman: The iceman came by this morning, And you know he didn't leave no ice. The postman came by later, baby, And he didn't even ring twice. . . You've been giving me some outside help that I don't really need.
Of course, no B.B. King concert would be complete without a rendition of "The Thrill Is Gone." Unfortunately, this particular version would be a lot more thrilling if it didn't drag on for so long (11 minutes and 27 seconds, to be exact). The string and rhythm sections add some pleasant touches to the long instrumental break, but the arrangement could easily have been trimmed in half. All those minutes might have been justified if King had only cut loose on his guitar; he doesn't, and the song merely simmers when it could have boiled.
Still, even at simmer, the King of the Blues remains a powerful performer, and as "Now Appearing" -- and this weekend's concert -- will testify, B.B. King is a master blues artist who can really cook.