Forget about the Delta myths of the blues, about haunted drifters with hellhounds on their trails. Forget even about blues as club music for houserocking drunken urban and suburban audiences. This is blues as, like B.B. King himself, venerable national institution.
Originally aired as an installment of Live By Request on A&E, the show allows King to answer brief questions and field call-in requests. Though the format, where most songs segue into banter and live requests (the longest string of uninterrupted music here is when “The Thrill Is Gone” is followed by “Rock Me Baby” is followed by “Key to the Highway”), it maintains the cheer of the evening. Especially when the call-in requests, and the stories and good wishes shared by the callers, are there to continually remind us of what a beloved figure King has become. Like Louis Armstrong with jazz, King has become the jovial icon of a music that, like himself, grew up with hardscrabble roots.
Like Armstrong, King has too much dignity to pander to his audience. He gives them what they want, sure, but not because he considers himself above the warm, even fuzzy, good time his audience has come to have. He gives them a warm good time because that’s also the sort of good time that he wants to have. Though King’s most beloved songs have, regardless of their original meanings, become cherished, universally acceptable standards, he doesn’t play by numbers. When a father requests “Sweet Little Angel” for his daughter, King launches into the song with gusto. Without dwelling on the spread wings of the lyrics, King and his band play with both gravity and spirit. Whether performing the song as a sexual innuendo or a song shared between father and daughter, King aims to please.
Contrast the performance here, then, with an album like Muddy “Mississippi” Waters Live. If that album is any indication, a blues great like Muddy Waters was playing harder, rougher audiences even late into his career. Waters aimed to please, too, and (wink, wink!) you knew what he was talking about. His audience hollers lustily at every sly innuendo or come-on. When Waters sings, “Your man done gone”, a chorus of mostly male voices roars their approval (though, to their credit, they don’t cheer for the next lines: “He’s goin’ down to the county farm / He’s got his shackles on”). Waters sings appropriately, rolling syllables of his tongue in measured paces and slowly drawing out the sexual charge on lines like, “She’s nineteen years old” or “Rock me, baby, like my back ain’t got no bone”. Both lines, naturally, draw cheers.
The latter workhorse blues line is sung here by King, who doesn’t let it dampen the familial cheer of his performance. When special guest Jeff Beck takes the bawdy lyrics as a cue to unleash his usual guitar pyrotechnics and distorted tones, it still comes as a surprise. Even as a welcome surprise, surprising in itself considering how King has gone his entire career displaying restrained, elegant playing while Beck has gone his own respective career by displaying, well, less restraint.
Not that their playing styles exactly mesh but, on the three songs Beck guests on here, he adds flash and grit to the festivities. Even then, though, the audience is respectfully happy. Though they cheer loudly between songs, during the songs themselves, they sway and clap in time, beaming and not getting out of hand. They are, in fact, the appropriate audience to attend a concert where callers share how King’s songs have allowed their families and generations to bond. Though the biggest hits from King’s entire career are naturally included in the night’s set, the concert itself is very much a tribute to the icon that King has presently become. While nowhere near as exciting as Live at the Regal, this DVD shows how well King wears his iconicity.