Twenty minutes after his seven-piece band started warming up the modest-sized crowd at the Midland theater Wednesday night, blues legend B.B. King was escorted on stage by a small entourage of handlers.
With some help, he took a seat in a blood-orange folding chair in the middle of the stage, where he would remain for the ensuing 70 minutes.
King turned 89 in the middle of September and more than ever he is showing the effects of his age.
One of the most influential and revered guitarists in the history of American popular music, he is now performing at a skill level that, at its best moments, is intermediate.
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None of that appeared to matter much to a crowd that showed him the reverence he is due, acting as if the show were an audience with the pope.
“This is like a ‘pay your respects’ tour,” someone whispered to me. That it was -- a chance to be in the same room with a legend whose reputation is nearly peerless. But it couldn’t sweeten the truth: It’s a reputation King can no longer live up to.
He could have been better served by his crew. Initially, he was seated too far from his microphone, so his banter with the crowd -- including his early band introductions -- couldn’t be heard from the back of the room.
About halfway through, one of the horn players in his dapperly attired band left his post and moved the microphone closer to King. It helped. And throughout the night, a crew member dressed in a T-shirt and jeans ran from one side of the stage to the other and back, stopping a few times at the drum or keyboard risers, but otherwise creating what seemed to be a needless distraction.
King is still as endearing as ever.
He chatted and flirted with the crowd up front, showing off his folksy charm. His voice is strong; he bellowed parts of “The Thrill Is Gone.” But when it came to displaying his skills on the guitar, he either faltered or deferred to Charles Dennis, his rhythm guitarist. There were moments when he flashed a resemblance to the player he once was, but for the most part he struggled to keep time and execute leads and flourishes that once came to him as naturally as breathing.
The set list, which comprised five or six songs, also included “Every Day I Have The Blues,” “I Need You So,” “Darling, You Know I Love You” and “You Are My Sunshine.” He got the audience involved on that one, generating a loud sing-along, one of several outbursts from a crowd that was effusive with its gratitude and generous with its applause.
He gave the men in his band plenty of time to show off their ample skills, especially Dennis, who shared lead with King a few times. His horn section, too, flashed some funkiness.
The show ended with some pageantry. As the band issued some fanfare, King’s handlers arrived on stage with a overcoat and wide-brimmed hat, which they helped him adorn. He sat back down for a few minutes, sipped a beverage and took in the rousing applause, then, with assistance, left the stage to the hero’s ovation he will always deserve.
Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear
The openers are a mother-son duo from Kansas City that is generating some much-deserved attention outside its hometown. Madisen Ward, 26, and his mother, Ruth Ward, 62, perform acoustic blues songs that are truly original and that showcase the pair’s singing, guitar play and charming rapport. Their 45-minute set was received enthusiastically by a crowd that comprised friends and family and fans seeing the two for the first time. They made a great first impression.