With an hour to kill before the concert at the Horshshoe Casino in beautiful (read: industrial wasteland) Hammond, Indiana, Alex, Seth, Mehdi and I made our way through a flashing, bleeping, shimmering, smoke-filled jungle of slot machines and roulette wheels. Alex, five dollars in hand, gravitated to a machine she thought felt 'hot.' She inserted the fiver, placed her bet (all-in!) and pulled the lever with all her might. The tumblers spun, stopping one by one: cherry, nothing, bar, nothing, nothing. I swear, J. W. Booth couldn’t have wiped that Lincoln out any faster. Thirty seven seconds later, the machine next door killed my Alexander Hamilton in efficient, Burr-like fashion.
Our night in the gaming room was over (honestly, what is the lure of machines that do nothing but inhale your money?) but we didn’t care. B.B. King was in the building.
I ordered my second Jack on the rocks and told the lady to make it a double. Alex opted for a glass (plastic cup) of merlot. After inhaling seven packs worth of exhaled Marlboro Lights, Camels, Kools and Basic Filters, the auditorium was mercifully smoke-free. The doors swung open. We entered what would be, at least for one night (Tomorrow: Michael Bolton, read the marquee. Thursday: A Night with Peter Tork), a Hall of Greatness.
The band, or perhaps orchestra is the word, warmed up the crowd with a couple of rollicking, brass-heavy numbers. And then he appeared. Corpulent and practically sweating charisma, B.B King settled himself into a chair and seized his life partner by the neck. “Is that Lucille?” someone asked. “Yes,” he answered. “This is Lucille.”
The crowd exploded. Blues Boy expressed his gratitude, but we were the ones who were grateful. Grateful for all 83 of his years. Grateful for the infinite licks squeezed out of that old guitar. Grateful for the voice that, in spite of age and diabetes and extensive use, remains as big and beautiful as ever.
Yes, B.B. King is old, as he boasted countless times on this night. In fact, age was his most constant theme (um, and sex). He doesn't play guitar as much as he once did. I suppose his fingers are a bit worn out after six or seven decades of picking and fretting. But he remains as soulful an entertainer as you'll find. Also one of the coolest. Did you know he was a licensed pilot? Because I sure didn’t. His set was short and featured many long monologues (in one bizarre turn, he defended Michael Phelps and his use of marijuana) that served as segues into his songs (See That My Grave Is Kept Clean was an unexpected and poignant delight). But when he did summon Lucille to throw down a sweet, tremulous solo, he was the same B.B. King that was changing the face of music half a century ago.
When the final chord of The Thrill Is Gone had been played, the music was done. There was no encore, but this legendary man, who by rights should be sitting on the throne of some tropical island nation and having his every wish indulged, stayed overtime to toss trinkets to the crowd and shake hands and sign autographs. I'm not an entirely unsentimental type; I got a little choked up seeing B.B King wheelchaired off the stage. He won't live forever, but he'll also never die. At least not until the world explodes.
So, here is my thank you, B.B. The McBoners will forgive a bit of corniness when I say: thanks, you, Mr. King, for coming to this awful, smoke-filled, money-sucking place to give us more, when you should be relaxing in a harem until the end of time, having your toes massaged while being fed grapes and fanned with a giant palm leaf by 100 veiled maiden-goddesses.