Is the thrill gone? Not quite, but it may be fading.
B.B. King -- the King of the Blues, the Beale Street Blues Boy, the superlative icon of blues guitar -- is still a thrill worth seeking, if only to lay eyes on a living legend and hear that utterly unique guitar tone. But Thursday night at Chicago's House of Blues, King, 86, seemed to be searching for the thrill, too, throughout an entertaining but unfocused and often confusing performance.
What this B.B. King concert needed was a little more B.B. King. Joined by a surprise guest, distracted by a hooting crowd and paralyzed by long stretches of thoughtful silence, King took a long time to get his mojo working.
In the first of two shows (he's back Friday at HOB), King spent many of his 80 minutes on stage talking, rambling, babbling. Once seated (diabetes and bad knees have kept him off his feet onstage for several years), and after jabbing a few sharp notes from his equally famous guitar, Lucille, King said, "I want you to listen to me" -- and then he took off muttering, not always audibly, about Marvin Gaye, Bill Cosby, guitarist Kenny Burrell. "Yes, I am crazy about women!" he suddenly shouted midway through. He apologized for a "bad throat," confessed to never being able to dance and then began a habit that would continue all night: casually tossing handfuls of guitar picks into the crowd as if he were feeding ducks.
Thirty-five minutes after the eight-piece band hit the stage -- and 10 minutes after he'd said, "I'd better shut up and go to work" -- King started his first song. He barked the lines of "I Need You So," swaying in his chair, and by "Rock Me Baby" he and Lucille started heating up. King doesn't ring chords or slide much; he bends strings and, while his staccato jabs might require a little more connecting of harmonious dots nowadays, once he finds his groove -- as he did on his classic "The Thrill Is Gone," supported by a punchy horn section -- he can really cook. Despite a scattered focus, he managed a few brief hot moments Thursday night.
In town for his own gig Friday night at the Chicago Theatre, jazz-R&B guitarist George Benson joined King onstage during an extended instrumental jam. A good fit against King's style -- Benson's a chord-ringer extraordinaire, especially up high -- the two took a long time to get comfortable with each other. Again, this was partly due to King's wandering interjections. ("Shut up, son," King told Benson, silencing him with a pat on his shoulder so he could say, with momentary seriousness, "I want to tell all of you that I love you.") Eventually, though, they started trading licks -- crying notes from King, fluttery chords from Benson -- and King's trademark grin got wider and wider.
"This was a surprise," King said of Benson's visit. "I'm so happy I'm kind of like a kid at Christmas."
The meandering narrative, the intact guitar chops, the consistent and almost grave expressions of appreciation to the crowd -- King's show had something in common with country star Glen Campbell's current tour, a farewell go-round after a previously announced Alzheimer's diagnosis. King's comparatively healthy and not about to stop touring (he was on the road through the fall, through the winter and is now on another leg of 26 dates), and the thrill is still there to be found, however intermittently.
B.B. King's Thursday set list:
"I Need You So"
"Rock Me Baby"
"Key to the Highway"
"The Thrill Is Gone"
"When Love Comes to Town"
"Every Day I Have the Blues"