B.B. King might be widely acclaimed as the King of the Blues, but his cultural capital has dwindled in the last few decades. His smooth, sophisticated version of the blues, with horns and keyboards, is generally ignored by critics and music nerds in favor of his Delta and Chicago counterparts--Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, and Robert Johnson are much more highly regarded by collectors and curators. King's music isn't quite authentic enough to be of much interest these days.
Except he really is one of the giant's of American music, as much as Howlin' Wolf, Hank Williams, and Billie Holiday--an important songwriter, one of the greatest and most influential guitarists of a generation full of them, and a subtly powerful singer. His early singles, like "3 O'Clock Blues," straddle the blues, R&B, and rock 'n' roll, with hints of swing and gospel--a precursor of the rise of soul a decade later. Through the 1960s, when Muddy Waters and Hooker were "rediscovered" by the folk revival, he had refined his sound--his 1971 album Live in Cook County Jail showcases a band and frontman running like clockwork. It's the standard by which all live albums should be measured.
Unfortunately for the audience at the Tennessee Theatre last night, King is now 88 (as he mentioned twice in the first half-hour), and that Cook County set is long behind him. Both his voice and guitar skills have faded noticeably, and his banter frequently wandered aimlessly. He muffed the introductions to his band and seemed at sea during long stretches of a 10-minute vamp on "You Are My Sunshine." He has an able veteran band--rhythm section, horns, keys--that kept the show anchored, but the star seemed sadly unfocused.
Sometimes allowances have to made for aging performers. Sometimes it's nice to see a music legend, even past the peak of his powers. Sometimes, as when Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys performed at the Bijou earlier this month, the old magic can appear, even if it's just for a few moments. A few phrases of King's guitar genius came through during "The Thrill Is Gone," his signature song, and the band gave it a slick Memphis blues presentation. But there weren't any of the thrills that King's legacy promised.