I was saddened to wake up to the news that B.B. King has passed away. He was always an inspiring artist. I saw him perform many times over the years and he was most gracious when I met backstage at the Molson Centre (now the Bell Centre) in Montreal before his 2001 concert there. Here’s my review from the February 2, 2001 issue of the Montreal Gazette of that concert.
B.B. King stands out sitting down
By Mike Regenstreif
Let the Good Times Roll! B.B. King was back in town last night and the good times, infectious, joyful good times rolled through the Molson Centre, planting big smiles on King, his band and the 4,500 or so in the crowd.
The only concession that King, 75, makes to age is that he now does the show sitting in a chair at the front of the big arena stage. But he still sings just as sweet on the ballads and shouts the blues with almost all of the power he had 50 years ago when Riley B. King, the Beale Street Blues Boy, became B.B. King, the undisputed King of the Blues.
The band started without the boss. Eight veteran musicians as tight a band as I've heard in years played a mid-tempo New Orleans second-line theme. Standout musicians including guitarist Leon Warren and keyboard ace James Tony, complemented by a rhythm section and four fat-sounding horns developed a groove that they would hold all night long. They slowed things down for a second number, a jazzy treatment of Summertime that had the crowd lounging in the hot Delta sunshine on a cold night in Montreal.
Seconds later, elation swept through the hall as King walked to his chair at centre stage. The crowd was on its feet shouting, King picked up the hollow-body Gibson electric that he calls Lucille and tore off a few riffs that seemed to tear the roof off the house.
King is an amazing guitar player, one of the most influential in music history. His lead lines positively sting as he bends the high notes like no one else. But, the thing is, King doesn't really play that much guitar. When he's singing, he's not playing, when he's listening to Warren or Tony take a solo, he's not playing, but he'll use his guitar in just the right places, providing just the right accents whether the tune is a swinging, jump blues or a quiet, soulful piece.
King plays another instrument brilliantly: the audience. Having done a couple of hundred shows a year for half a century, he's a master showman who knows how to work the room. He says just the right thing at just the right time. The facial movements and body language play to the folks down front and to those up top. And he's sharp as a tack. When his microphone lost its juice in the second song he started shouting out one-liners. "I thought it was just California that missed paying the electric bill," he told the laughing audience.
But, for all the show biz, it was a great night of music by a master musician. Whether he was delving into Memphis soul on Peace of Mind or jiving the crowd on Louis Jordan's Caldonia, King was absolutely terrific.