Friday night Bryan and I headed up to the State Theater in Ithaca. This lovely venue brings in all sorts of acts from all over. I’m sure we would frequent it more often if Ithaca wasn’t an hour away. In another lifetime I would drive up there three times a week at night and I’ve had quite enough of the drive. Especially since over half of the drive is on a small country highway. I digress. The State Theater has roughly 1600 seats so it is a relatively small venue and has a very intimate feel. When we saw B.B. King was coming we just had to go, Bryan has never seen him and you never know how much longer he will be touring.
The night started out with a local blues musician who, while he wasn’t good with crowd interaction and banter, was a talented musician. He did a few covers and a few originals and was an entertaining opening act. After a break to reset the stage the band came on and started playing. Something I love about seeing B.B. King play is the full band that plays with him. The horns are always crisp and the Hammond B3 Wurlitzer (I think) organ is always distinct. Another great thing is how sharp the band looks wearing three-piece suits. So the band started, each member getting a chance to solo. Their ability to take a framework of notes and improvise something within them that makes sense and sounds good never stops amazing me. After the band’s opening B.B. takes the stage. There is a chair out for him to sit in (at 88 he now performs seated). Once settled the band brings it down to a simple drum beat and walking bass line while B.B. goes threw the introductions. And they aren’t just introductions, he has a little something different to say about everyone. The one I liked was for his nephew in the band. The story being that his brother’s name was Walter. And he didn’t like it. B.B.’s was Riley. And he didn’t like that. So his sister names her boy Walter Riley King. After the introductions, they transition into an extended version of You Are My Sunshine which included some story telling and a bit of audience singing, a great way to get us engaged with each other and with the band. Next was one of my favorites, The Thrill Is Gone. The horns were fabulous. Then there was Sweet Sixteen, How Blue Can You Get (a.k.a. Downhearted), and others. I enjoyed watching the way B.B. works with his band. The ensemble has an amazing sound on their own and they never outshine King. They work as well balanced support. There is a “young” guitar player (I’d place him in his 60s/70s) that does some of the more intricate and fast paced sections but B.B. always comes in and adds his special style. I found a quote of his that really describes his style
“When I sing, I play in my mind; the minute I stop singing orally, I start to sing by playing Lucille.”
He ended the night with Someone Really Loves You, Guess Who?
He had technically ended it one song before but there was an older couple in front who requested it, apparently it was their wedding song and he obliged.
This is the fourth time I’ve seen him and while he has definitely slowed down in the last 20 years (has it really been that long?) he is a true legend and is still unbelievable to watch. If you’ve read this far and don’t know who B.B. King is, I highly recommend you pick up an album or two and hear what you’ve been missing.