When the Massry Center for the Arts at The College of Saint Rose set out to plan their 5th anniversary gala, held this past Sunday, April 14th, they looked to go big and find an act that would fit the evening. After a brief search, the name of the greatest living blues guitarist was thrown into the mix. Ultimately, B.B. King was selected to play for a select crowd of 300 patrons, donors and students of Saint Rose, making for an intimate experience, one the crowd would not soon forget.
The Massry and Picotte families were honored for their donations towards the Massry Center and the Picotte Recital Hall, respectively. Starting sharply at 7:45 that evening, the band, minus B.B., came out on the stage and began 10 minutes of swinging jazz orchestration, warming up the toes of the crowd as they tapped and swayed them into the groove as each horn took a vibrant solo.
The band beckoned the crowd for growing applause, as B.B. King walked out from stage right, with white tufts of hair covering his head and a signature purple jacket with a gold and silver pattern. King tossed out some guitar picks before sitting down gently, taking Lucille by the neck and plucked her strings to bring forth that signature sound, the one that every blues guitarist alive seeks to imitate, for that golden sound of blues guitar from B.B. King’s fingers is unmistakable to even the casual fan.
B.B.’s band, all incredible individual musicians in their own right, took their own solos throughout the evening, including Charles Dennis on guitar, ‘Professor’ Stanley Abernathy on trumpet, Melvin Jackson on sax, James Sells Toney on keyboards, Robert Higgins on drums, Ron Torbensen on bass and B.B.’s nephew Walter Riley King on flute and baritone saxaphone. In every song, B.B. would defer to them, as they brought each tune to new heights, only to be accented by King’s own guitarwork .
With King out on stage, he sat down front and center and moved into “I Need You So”, with the keys eliciting symphonic strings for a soothing opener. “Everyday I Have the Blues”, one of many classics over the course of the evening, brought the voice of the King to the forefront, with a little plucking as the band played and he strutted in his seat. The horns on “Rock me Baby” added so much to the sound of guitar, it created a perfect accent for the evening. “So Excited” started out with an extended instrumental before the lyrics of a love’s lament, “I’m so excited, think about you all the time, Yes I can’t wait to see you baby, You really messed up my mind.” About this time I noticed the incredible detail on B.B.s jacket, which stood out like a peacock showing off his feathers, enticing the audience to come in just a little bit more towards each song he sang. A high saxophone solo provided a great contribution to “So Excited”, while B.B. made it look so easy to play the blues, the notes just popping off his fingers.
Audience participation was unexpected, but welcomed by all, with the classic tune “You are my Sunshine”, sans horns, just guitars, keys and drums. B.B. encourages the crowd to sing along early on in the tune with him, then solo, then the crowd reignited the singing without prompt. B.B. invited the women to sing a verse, then give a kiss to a guy near them, which led to humorous banter with the front row of the school’s dignitaries. Encouraging the ladies to sing and kiss a guy near them again, King counted off to 4 (at a slow pace – one, one and a half, two, two and a half…) and got the crowd kissing again. To extend the song just a bit longer, he remarked that “a few guys didn’t get kissed, so pucker up next time”, which elicited uproarious laughter from the crowd before another sing along of the refrain from the audience.
Getting back to the classics, “The Thrill is Gone” bled from the strings, and with seats so close, I could hear each string plucked as B.B. worked through the song. “Someone Really Loves You” was accompanied by flute and the delicate notes were enhanced by the Picotte Recital Hall’s incredible acoustics. “Love Came to Town” got progressively more toe tappy and invigorating, leading to louder horns amid full swinging blues and an audience clap along.
For the finale of the night, B.B. mentioned a tune that he used to play with Willie Nelson at the end of shows when they toured together in 2008. “When the Saints go Marching in”, the ultimate song for New Orleans. B.B. grooved over the song, sang the memorable lyrics and then casually invited individuals from the audience to come up and get additional guitar picks, commemorative pendants or a handshake, as well as a beaming smile. This led to a true moment for many in the audience (this chance to meet the King lasted for well over 30 minutes) – to interact with a legend who has shared the gift of his music for nearly three quarters of his life. God bless B.B. King.
Setlist: Intro 1, Intro 2, I Need You, Everyday I have the Blues, Rock me Baby, So Excited, You are my Sunshine, The Thrill is Gone, Someone Really Loves You, Love Came to Town, When the Saints go Marching in