Monday, March 11, 2013

B.B. King at the Hult Center, Eugene, 3/10/13

B.B. came through here two or three years ago, but we were too busy to see him then.  I've regretted it ever since.  I don't really have a bucket list, so it's not that, but it's not every day that a bona fide blues legend plays your small city in the Northwest.  So when we saw he was coming back, we jumped on it.

Unfortunately, we waited a year or two too long to see him.  Because what we saw last night was just the shell of a once-great man.  It was sad.  It was depressing.

It didn't help that there were sound problems.  His backing band came out and played a couple of rollicking instrumentals, so far so good, but then the Man Himself came out, sat down, and discovered, too late, that his amp wasn't working.  He had the band vamp for a while longer while he sang a little bit of something, then introduced the band - at length - then tried to sing a little bit of something else.  In the end it took at least twenty minutes to get Lucille working, and they had to hook her up to three different amps to find one that would work.

In the meantime B.B.'s band intro was starting to get worrisome.  At first he was plainly meandering, but I figured well, he's old, plus he's trying to kill time;  I thought it was charmingly laid-back.  But then he introduced the drummer for a second time, obviously having forgotten that he introduced him five minutes before.  That was a warning sign.  Because he never got any more coherent last night.  His monologues got less and less followable, and even when the crew got the guitar working, he hardly played it.

He hardly played it.  In the end, he only performed about three complete songs.  One was a short and rather shapeless version of "The Thrill Is Gone," which was the only time he really tried to solo, and his phrases were out of tune and out of time.  His fingers are going.  But still, that was forgivable.  He's 87 years old, for Christ's sake. 

It was the endless version of "You Are My Sunshine" that followed that really made it clear that something was wrong.  He hardly played any guitar, only really sang a verse, and spent the rest of the time trying to get the audience to sing along and joshing around with the girls in the front row.  This kind of fooling around would make sense after an hour of intense blues playing, as a kind of breather before the finale, but he hadn't really done anything yet.  This was just puzzling.  And it was when we really realized:  we were watching a befuddled old man sitting up there.  A guy who had done tremendous things in his time, but who just didn't belong on a stage anymore.  A guy who may not have completely realized he was on a stage. 

By this time, half the audience was leaving, or thinking about it.  The other half was crowding up by the stage, egging him on;  I'm not sure if it was out of blind faith or cruelty.  At the end, when it was clear the show was over - it kind of petered out, no real finale - he just sat there throwing out guitar picks and signing whatever people brought him.  On the stage.  Kept telling the crowd he loved them, every time somebody would shout something from the audience - but it wasn't always clear they were shouting their love to him.

Maybe we just caught him on a bad night.  Or maybe the problems with the amp threw him off.  But reading other reviews from this tour, it sounds like this is what he does now.  So I guess it's what he wants to do.  And I guess that's his right.  I don't feel ripped off or anything.  I just feel sad.  This isn't how I want to remember B.B. King.