BB King

Concert Review- BB King at Red Rocks, August 30, 2012

    On Thursday night at 10pm Eastern in Tampa, Florida, and 8pm Mountain in Morrison, Colorado, two iconic entertainers simultaneously took the mike two thousand miles apart and took their audiences on a strange, though not wholly unexpected trip. I awoke Saturday to a phone call from my old trail boss Gil Favor back East, who knows not what time zone I am in. “He was really out there… I had to call you”. I couldn’t tell what he was talking about, but then when he said, “he didn’t know his limitations”, I knew. The Harry Callahan reference ( ” A man’s got to know his limitations”) jogged a memory of an online blurb about Clint Eastwood going strange at the Republican convention. Gil and I spent many Sunday mornings watching the young Clint as the trail drive ramrod Rowdy Yates in  ” Rawhide ” reruns on WGN from Chicago. We are huge fans of his artistry, but rarely his politics.

Firing up the Dell, there it was, already the most e-mailed story on the NY Times site, revealing that Clint had been secretly given the prime slot before Willard’s acceptance speech, and delivered what the Times called ” the most bizarre, head-scratching 12 minutes in recent political convention history”, consisting of a “rambling conversation with an empty chair” that twice descended off-color and would be described by a furious Romney’s aides as “strange” and “theater of the absurd”. As I begged the modem to download the video and watch for myself, I imagined a senile Eastwood reprising his  “Rawhide” role and rounding up the convention hall of GOP pachyderms as if they were a herd of beevs on their way to Sedalia, and driving them out onto the streets of Tampa to graze in his own ” high and wide” pastures. But Clint didn’t just hijack a meeting; we’ve all been victims of that at some level. Oh no. Clint hijacked Mitt’s nomination moment. He took everyone off on a strange, meandering trip of the unscripted sort that terrifies the Romney handlers, and made himself the trend on the internet and TV the next morning instead of Mitt.

And the best part was, according to the Times, that Romney’s top aides so trusted ( read that, “sucked up to”) Clint that, unlike any other speaker, “they did not conduct rehearsals or insist on a script or communicate guidelines for the style or format of his remarks.” Clint was scheduled to speak for five minutes, and took twelve. He ignored the teleprompter, and instead pretended to interview an empty chair. He even kept going when they flashed a blinking red light signalling that his time was up. Not once, but twice, he purported to explain to the chair that neither Mitt, nor he, was able to perform an autonomous sex act.  “I can’t tell him that, he can’t  do that to himself”. ” I can’t do that to myself”, he smilingly chirped to the empty chair. But in defense of the cowering RNC heads, imagine the pre-show moment when the top guys finger some local hack whose political fortunes are in such decline that he can be sacrificed for the job of approaching Clint to find out what the hell he plans to say in the immediate run-up to Mitt’s big moment:

Hack: ” Uh, Clint, we..uh, don’t know what you’re going to say, and we’re..”

Clint:  ” Get off my lawn..”

Hack:  ” Umm, Clint, I’m not in your yard, we’re in your dressing room, and we wondered..”

Clint:  ” Didn’t you see ‘Gran Torino’?”

Hack: ” Thanks, I’ll be going….”

Yes, apparently no one in the GOP war room had the stones to insist that Clint tell them what he planned to do, say, or perform with the chair he requested at the last minute. And in a signature gesture of meeting pirates everywhere, Clint even pimped Mitt’s moment to hype his own brand, leading the conventioners in a “Dirty Harry” call-and-response of ” Go ahead, make my day” to close out his show, to roaring applause.

At the same moment in a galaxy far, far away from Tampa, the great BB King gingerly strode onstage at Red Rocks in tiny Morrison, Colorado. Having seen BB twice recently, I knew that he would be seated throughout, would tell  a lot of stories we’d heard before, and hopefully deliver a few magical moments of the most distinctive blues guitar playing of my lifetime: that ringing bell tone and shivering vibrato that many imitate, but few ever approach. But this show was tenuous. The pre-show email directed ticketholders to arrive by 8pm because BB would be opening the show, not the lower-billed Tedeschi/Trucks Band, as if to say that ” visiting hours are over at 9 and Mr. King will be going to bed”. This is to be expected when you’re 86 years old and still playing hundreds of shows per year. BB has earned the right to do as he pleases, and can keel over onstage when he’s ready if that’s how he wants to go out. But I have to wonder, does he really want to go out like this?

I first saw BB on a bill with Bobby ” Blue” Bland at the former Civic Aud in Jacksonville back in the early 80s. They played a 7pm and a 9:30pm show, and what a scene it was. The sisters were dressed to the nines, the men had their best shoes shined, and the bands all came out in tuxes and evening wear. BB sang and played until midnight, and was wildly received. Soon after, I saw him at the Florida Theater with Derek Trucks opening, but then it was years later when I saw him in the new Moran Theater on the site of the old Aud. With the passage of time, he had aged considerably, though still played with brilliant joy.

But when you get an email warning you that he’s opening the show, despite being the headliner, and to be there by 8pm or you might miss him, you start to wonder. Then, when you’re worried if he can walk from the wings to his chair onstage, and you’re relieved when he does so without falling, you start to question. But what got me was his “don’t call what you’re wearin’ an” outfit. His Majesty, the King of the Blues, was wearing what looked like one of those hospital gowns with no back that freeze your ass, or at best, his pajamas. This only served to reinforce the image of BB being wheeled from the lockdown unit at the Senior Center to the backstage entry at Red Rocks, on a brief hall pass with an expiration hour, not date. Now I know that Mike Cooley went straight from the tourbus to the stage in his pajamas at First Avenue due to the late encore by the hometown Hold Steady during the “Rock and Roll Means Well” tour, but that was way after midnight. BB was rockin’ his jammies at the start of the show, or so it appeared. Having seen him nattily attired in tuxes and tailored suits over the years, it was a bit embarassing, despite my buddy Pat’s insistence that it was ” a Hawaiian shirt”.

But that paled compared with the cringe inducement to follow. After purporting to introduce the band, BB audibly insisted to one of this assistants onstage that he ” did everyone”, despite obviously overlooking the long-time horn player who had done the voiceover for BB’s entry — just as he had when I saw them back in the 80s! After a couple numbers where BB was able to share brief moments of blissful, stinging notes, he began a medley, if you will, of treachly singalongs that reached its nadir with ” You Are My Sunshine”.

There are moments in most shows when a cagey vet knows to head for the restroom because you’re not going to miss anything onstage. Drum solos are an obvious choice. Any drum solo performed after Ginger Baker’s ” Toad ” on Cream’s ” Wheels of Fire” LP is, and has been, redundant and intolerably boring. A great time to hit the head! Another safe bet is any instrumental solo where the lead singer or guitarist unplugs and walks offstage. If they’re not sticking around for this, why should you? But BB had brought a double restroom whammy here – a juvenile singalong to musical cotton candy. BB, you’re better than that! Remember what Townes Van Zant told Steve Earle: ” There are two kinds of music. There’s the blues, and there’s zippity doo-dah”.  The sight and sound of blues royalty laying on that doo-dah was way too much for me. I took in the scenery overlooking the Mile High City, gazed back at the long line that had since formed at the men’s room, and strolled back in when I thought the coast was clear.

BB managed to rally from this stupor to play several bars and sing several verses of his finale, including a credible version of ” The Thrill Is Gone”. In gracious fashion, he took pains to treat several disabled fans seated in front to souvenirs and waved greetings, and sincerely lauded the Tedeschi/Trucks show to follow. His kick-ass band slammed through his exit serenade, and fans everywhere turned to each other while BB waved goodbye, saying ” this might be the last time we see him!”

I’m glad I was there. It pained me to see him in fragile health, and his face lacked the joy that I’d seen in earlier shows. BB has always lived to tour, and maybe he still likes playing 300 dates a year. Maybe he figures he can wear what he pleases, and play silly fluff if the old ladies want to sing along. Maybe none of this seems beneath him, and maybe he doesn’t care. But I got the same sickening feeling listening to ” You Are My Sunshine” that I did watching Dirty Harry struggling to debate with an empty chair. Is there no one in their ear who has the guts to tell them they’re embarassing themselves? BB is the steam engine pulling a long train of musicians, roadies, managers, helpers, and pencil pushers, all of whom earn a tidy living when the Gravy Train is on the tracks. Will any of them say,    ” Hey BB, why aren’t we playing something from the old greats instead of this crap?” And certainly the RNC and Mitt’s handlers were too busy counting the dollars they hoped would be tossed into the coffers to notice the partially sawed-through steering rod that would send that Gran Torino into an embankment like Sheriff Pusser’s patrol vehicle. None of them even had the temerity to ask Clint what he was going to say; apparently, no one in Clint’s ear did, either.

Nanker Phledge would be happy to take BB’s spot on the unit

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