B.B. King was 68 when this wonderful show was recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival. That sounds like a lot, but considering he’s still performing at 84—albeit now sitting down in a chair onstage—he was still relatively young and spry. Fronting a tight octet—the B.B. King Orchestra; it boasts three horn players and the requisite guitar, bass, drums, keys and percussionists—King prowls the stage resplendent in a tux that looks like it’s turquoise silk with silver and gold floral brocade, firing off sharp volleys from his trademark black Gibson, throwing every ounce of his large frame into both his playing and his singing. At nearly 100 minutes, too, there’s plenty of B.B. to enjoy. As usual with these Montreux discs (especially the later ones), sound and visuals are just about perfect.
The first nine minutes or so, however, the band lays down a couple of smooth instrumental grooves without its leader, and though the band is in fine form, the music doesn’t really take off until B.B. makes his entrance and immediately ups the Grit Factor by about 100 percent with his stinging leads. For some reason—maybe it’s the legacy of “The Thrill Is Gone”—I always forget how rough and edgy King’s playing often is; it’s not all round crystalline tones. Even playing through changes he’s worked a million times, he’s still improvising constantly and taking chances, occasionally even trying ideas he can’t pull off completely…but stretching himself, which is what you want to see in a musician.
B.B. moves through a wide variety of moods and feelings over the course of his set, from the horn-driven jump blues of “Caledonia” and classics like “Rock Me Baby” and “Why I Sing the Blues,” to modern tunes like Robert Cray’s “Playing with My Friends” (actually one of the weaker tracks) and, of course, the obligatory (but always appreciated!) “The Thrill Is Gone.” My favorites are, as always, the slow blues: “Chains of Love” is an amazing performance (during which B.B. even changes a string, without missing a beat); and the instrumental “All Over Again” starts with some speedy, abrupt runs that reminded me a bit of Carlos Santana (who worships B.B.) before settling into a slow, steamy gait. Props to the great band, as well—especially keyboardist James Toney, who adds so much on piano and organ.
They don’t call B.B. “King of the Blues” for nothin’! This is the real deal, from beginning to end.
Director: Michel Ferla. Live recording and mixing: Justin Shirley Smith and Anders Muhr.
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