IN SEPTEMBER B. B. King turned 65, and if he hasn't quite retired, he has at least cut back on his schedule. Of course, that means the blues guitarist is only doing 200-plus dates a year now instead of 300-plus dates. Every one of those shows is a good one, for this solid pro delivers his robust singing and clean, speedy picking every time. Very rarely these days, however, does he play with the boundary-pushing passion of his Kent singles from the early '60s or his crossover ABC hits of the late '60s.
This isn't meant as criticism, for King long ago established his bona fides as an American music legend, and his reliable professionalism is far preferable to the sloppiness of many an oldie act. King's new album, "Live at San Quentin," is a faithful document of his current road show: He plays his standard repertoire with the customary enthusiasm, shouting and playing fleet-fingered solos over a rock-steady rhythm section and horn section. On the plus side, the album is more than 63 minutes long; on the down side, many of those minutes are devoted to King talking to the California inmates or accepting an award from them.
"Live at San Quentin" is a useful document of King in his sixties, but anyone wanting to hear the music that made him the "King of the Blues" should check out studio albums such as "16 Original Big Hits" (Fantasy), "Completely Well" (ABC) and "Love Me Tender" (MCA), or live albums such as "Live at Cook County Jail" (ABC) and "Live at the Regal" (Kent/ABC). B. B. KING -- "Live at San Quentin" (MCA). Appearing Friday at Anton's 1201 Club.