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B.B. King
Wembley Arena - April 2006
Review David Atkinson

BB KIng - Lucille guitar illustration

Last night the UK bid a fond farewell to The King of The Blues.

I'd long avoided seeing BB King live because I so much admired his late sixties and early seventies output, particularly the classic Live At The Regal and the lesser known but equally incendiary Live In Japan. Both awesome albums documenting a blues artist at the very peak of his powers: the tightest bands, the most expressive singing and guitar work, and almost orgiastic audience responses. I just knew I’d be disappointed. This guy is eighty years old! Surely he’s a shadow of his former self?

Well, no…

Wembley Arena is probably as far removed from the Regal Theatre as it is possible to get – a cavernous, chilly venue you could fly a jumbo jet through. Not exactly intimate, yet BB King can not only draw a big enough crowd but fill the massive space with soul as well.

King has always led a great band and along with his natural charisma it was the strength and polish of his group that carries him though tonight. The pace was gentle but still far more than you'd expect from someone his age. Relying more on his still-strong singing than Lucille - who was in fine voice nevertheless - we got plenty of banter and respectful audience participation and were still treated to some fine versions of some of his classic tunes.

He earned his success through years on the road, developing a sophisticated sound that marries the swing of Louis Jordan with a gospel singer’s convictions and a guitar style that fuses T-Bone Walker, Lonnie Johnson and Charlie Christian. It's this emotive guitar playing that has had the biggest impact on blues and popular music but no one else does it with such aplomb.

As interchangeable as his guest-star filled albums of the past fifteen years or so have been his career was built on a relentless touring schedule and the highlights of his recorded output have always been the live albums. Tonight, there was no trace of pastiche or self-parody, his spirit obviously not dimmed by his age or ill health. While I'd have loved to see the BB King of old, knowing his heart is clearly still in what he does more than made up for it.

"I wish I could go on doing this forever," he said at one point. Obviously he can't but I'm glad I saw him while he still could.

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