America bleeds the blues.
It is the music rooted in our country’s struggles and vindicated by our resolve. It is the encapsulation of hope and loss in three short chords, an art form that serves as the bedrock to our rich and ever-expanding musical history.
There are few men more formative to that art than B.B. King, who performed before a sold-out audience in the Mondavi Center on Sunday. A titan of his time, King revolutionized electric blues guitar with his lush vibrato, melodic phrasing and expansive library of classic songs. His work is a window to history, his influence present in every guitarist to have ever followed.
Well … they tell you not to meet your idols.
At the noble age of 87, King simply lacks the physical ability to perform on a level that such a large-scale show merits. While forgivable, the addition of shoddy production value on virtually every level added insult to auditory injury in what unfolded as a night of bittersweet disappointment.
First and most surprisingly, a muddled house-mix in Jackson Hall destroyed any sense of harmony between King and the individual members of his talented ensemble. Trumpet tripped over tenor sax as keyboard strokes flooded over everyone else in an awkward orgy of sonic sadness.
In the most rookie mistake of the century, King’s amplifier was placed onstage without a sound check, too close to the drum kit. Subsequently, every time B.B. plucked a note in the middle and upper registers of his beloved ebony guitar Lucille, the snare drum rattled behind him involuntarily and dirtied his already indecipherable tone.
It might seem petty to gripe on the stagehands’ lack of inconspicuous apparel, but when a large man in a neon green T-shirt strolls down to the performers in the middle of “Every Day I Have The Blues” to distribute sweat towels, it’s difficult to determine whether or not you are capable of punching a baby seal in the face.
I’m also willing to bet good money the lighting technician for the evening was attempting to make the audience drop it like it’s hot. For whatever reason, he resolved to switch between dramatically dimmed colors to a full, illuminated house several times for each song without regard to the mood of the piece. Either way, it just made me sleepy and I’m sure some small child in the second row almost had a seizure. Statistically speaking, it’s possible.
King is a master minimalist, effortlessly expressing complex emotions with simple string bends and sparse, lyrical phrases. However, despite many of the evening’s classic tunes, including fast-paced boogies like “Rock Me Baby,” King continued to play as lethargically as ever, off the beat and often out of tune.
But in the most grievous of offenses, King continuously refused to do what his crowd of devoted fans came from far and wide to see him do — unleash a barrage of face-melting, gut-wrenching guitar solos like a motherfucking Mississippi boss.
Instead, King chose to use his solo time to dance in his seat, make several threats at his bandmates in what was hopefully a joking manner, make sexual statements about his lost vitality and tell witty stories from his rich musical past. The latter might not have been so bad had the microphone been placed close enough to hear exactly what he was trying to say. Most of the time, all the audience managed to hear was, “Down … Missisp … used to … them girls … and sometimes … man didn’t come back.”
I’ll bet they did, B.B. I’ll bet they did.
I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy watching a childhood idol make masturbatory motions on stage from the grand tier. I’m more upset with the fact that, as I sat listening to my long-time musical inspiration complain about his inability to engage in deep and meaningful coitus, he didn’t at least provide a tissue.
Also, I totally don’t enjoy watching a childhood idol make masturbatory motions on stage from the grand tier.
It was some time between counting the number of people in my tier reading their programs mid-performance or leaving to the restroom (six and five, respectively) that I completely lost faith in the show.
Yet for one brilliant moment, in his penultimate song of the night, something unusual happened. The ensemble turned down their instruments to optimal levels. The snare drum ceased to rattle. The lights dimmed down to an appropriate blue hue and stayed that way. And suddenly, B.B. started to do his thing.
It was the most beautiful four minutes of my life. His notes soared gracefully over the chord changes, brilliantly executing jazzy, soulful licks that both delighted and surprised. He told a story with his sound, a story that everyone in the audience could relate to. In his sonic expressions was the pain of a man unemployed, the remembrance of a forgotten lover and the struggle of the American people.
There was B.B. King, in his magical way putting my worst childhood memories, romantic frustrations, and shit grades in a sound that both mourned and understood. This was sadness and hope.
This was the blues.
Couples embraced, heads nodded and the small child seated next to me sat hushed and full of wonder.
But nothing gold can stay. Soon, the strobe lights returned, the band blasted away at each other, and King resumed his pining to some woman in the front row.
Yes, the evening didn’t go as planned. Yes, my roommate turned to me in a look of betrayal three times throughout the night. Yes, a personal idol played “just the tip” with my childhood memories.
Yet as I stumbled out into the cold, mourning my loss and listening to the little boy next to me ask for his first guitar, I realized something.
B.B. King had given us the blues.
Not in the way we anticipated, surely. But we could feel it in our bones, nonetheless.
Maybe the master still has a few tricks up his sleeve after all.
ADAM KHAN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.