In 1974, Muhammad Ali and George Foreman held their heavyweight title fight in Zaire, billing it as the “Rumble in the Jungle”. A three-day music festival was staged concurrently, and B.B. King was the headlining act. Anyone who has ever had the fortune to see B.B. King play live, even in his later, seated years knows that he is a consummate showman. B.B. King: Live in Africa ’74 presents the man at the peak of his powers, as a performer and as a player.
The focus on his finger work is one of many highlights on this disc. Lucille gets a lions’ share of close-ups here, and it’s fascinating to watch. The sound is phenomenal as well, presented in 5.1 Surround or 2.0 Stereo, it’s cleaner and clearer than earlier releases of this concert, but still retains the rich depth and fullness expected from the King of the Blues. B.B. King’s shouting and singing here is also some of the best of his career.
Live in Africa ’74 begins by following a sharply but simply attired King from his backstage area, as he announces, “I’m ready!” And he certainly was, tearing through a blisteringly tight set of favorites with obvious glee. B.B. opens with “To Know You is to Love You” and goes straight into a jaw-dropping version of “I Believe to My Soul”. Of course, the audience loves “Why I Sing the Blues”, and throughout the set, it’s clear that B.B. and the band members are getting just as much joy from the throng 80,000 strong as the crowd is getting from them. In fact, if you pay close attention, you’ll even see Ali enjoying himself.
King appears to particularly enjoy “Ain’t Nobody Home”, but the pinnacle of the whole performance is undoubtedly “Sweet Sixteen”, coming right in the middle of the set and trading camera time between B.B. and pianist Ron Levy. Of course, “The Thrill is Gone” is a crowd-pleaser too. The short set is wrapped up with “Guess Who”, which is dedicated to “All of the beautiful people in this beautiful country,” and King closes with “I Like to Live the Love”.
Live in Africa ’74 is not even an hour long, but it is B.B. King, and beyond that it’s arguably B.B. at his best, so the running time isn’t really even an issue. That’s not to say there shouldn’t be more, encores are always welcome, however, there are enough classics here to please any fan of the King of the Blues.
In addition to the excellent attention paid to his guitar technique (which could be something of a blues tutorial if you are so inclined to study with the master), there is a fabulous bonus feature in the 1981 interview with B.B.King. In it, he discusses his life and how he almost lost his life saving his guitar, Lucille, from a fire; he talks about how he loves to go to many places and keep the blues, alive by giving it to the people and about how he is deeply concerned about what happens to humanity. He doesn’t speak about the ’74 concert, specifically, but it’s still nice to see the man behind the showman.
B.B. King: Live in Africa ’74 is a must for any B.B. King fan, or any fan of the blues, really, because B.B. King is the blues, and this concert irrevocably proves that fact.