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Published: 2009/01/18
by Ian Zeitzer

B.B. King, Star of the Desert Arena, Primm, NV- 1/3

Decembers never seem to end without a series of touching tributes remembering all of the great artists who passed over the course of the year. 2008 was no exception, as the music industry said goodbye to diva Eartha Kitt, jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, soul man Isaac Hayes, and blues/rock guitarists Bo Diddley and Jeff Healey among others. Januarys then prove as good an occasion as any to take inventory of the crafty veterans who made it through the calendar one more time. One such icon is B.B. King, who at 83 years old, continues to tour nationally despite battling diabetes and a host of other ailments he's determined not to let defeat him. Well, he’s accepted they will defeat him; they just won’t take him quietly.

The Star of the Desert Arena sits in the middle of a truck-stop casino in Primm, where the open arid terrains of Southeastern California and Southwestern Nevada unceremoniously mesh. Built for boxing matches and classic rock spectacles, B.B.’s band sounded lost in the cavernous hall, which was halved by large black curtains as the crowd nowhere near filled the facility. About the only clear tone all night was Lucille, as every technician on site must’ve been specifically fixated on preserving the lead guitar’s signature wail no matter what the acoustics. His crack 8-piece backing band, featuring a rambunctious horn section which meandered around the back of the oversized stage on their breaks, would’ve benefited from a better sound system. However no one paid much attention to them outside of B.B. King himself, as he is truly the star of his own show.

Following two quick instrumental jazz-funk jams and his introduction, King lumbered out to center stage to a standing ovation. Seated the whole show due to two bad knees, it almost looks like B.B.’s arms have serendipitously grown to match his expanding waistline, so that his hands to still hit his guitar in the same sweet spots no matter big he gets.

A resident of Las Vegas, King’s latter day concerts resemble a choreographed showroom revue more than a blues romp. He talks endlessly – thanking the crowd, introducing or prodding his band, sharing stories, dedicating songs, etc. all punctuated with a self-deprecating sense of humor. An extended segment dedicated to the gentlemen in the audience revolving around his Drs. Viagra, Cialis and Levitra mixed his pluck with his age, while a sing-along to “You Are My Sunshine” endeared him to the ladies. He rarely finished a song, instead choosing to segue into his next jam or drift off into another monologue. When he did finish a song, however, the flashes of brilliance that first made him a superstar are still glaringly apparent.

The musical highlights of the evening came during a multi-song down-tempo stretch without the horns, when he just grabbed Lucille and let her sing. He introduced Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” featured on his recent covers album One Kind Favor, and injected the boogie-woogie number with extra shots of vim and vigor. Having loved and lost and circled the globe, the song shows a vulnerable B.B. aware of his mortality and choosing to face it head-on. Over 60 years into his career, the man can still bring the house down with little more than a blues progression and soaring howl. Culminating one long set with his signature tune “The Thrill Is Gone,” where the first notes brought a hearty wave of applause, one can eerily picture the nightly news tribute to B.B. King running a clip of him performing the very same song. That’s all the more reason to rush out to see him now, even if it means sifting through his stories and sitting in a half-empty sports arena to do so.

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