Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Music review: King and Guy, two remarkable monarchs of the blues

B.B. King acknowledges the applause Monday night
from the stage of the Kravis Center. (Photo by Thom Smith)

By Thom Smith

You can have a souped-up roadster with growling pipes and screeching tires, searing the asphalt like the sun.

Or you can have a long, long limousine that rumbles along effortlessly, glistening in the moonlight with its occupants swathed in silk and velvet.

Occasionally you can have both at once, which is what happened Monday night at the Kravis Center, when two kings of the road -- the hot-rodding Buddy Guy and the oh-so-smooth Caddy, B.B. King -- brought their tour to the Kravis Center.

Arguably, the two reigning monarchs of blues guitar should have been weary. They were supposed to play West Palm Beach on Friday, but the road threw up a slight detour that steered them to Los Angeles for Sunday’s Grammy Awards.

Both were up for Best Traditional Blues Album: Guy for Skin Deep, King for One Kind Favor. They also joined in a tribute to Bo Diddley, who died last June at age 79. Then King, Grammy in hand, and Guy, holding no grudges, red-eyed back to Florida.

“All those shows, whether it’s the Grammys, David Letterman or Jay Leno, you do three minutes,” Guy said backstage before his set, “but you got to spend twelve-and-a-half hours getting ready, and most of the time you’re just sitting round. They just have you there. ‘OK, light check!’ ‘Sound check!’ and then it’s ‘All right, see you later on.’”

Guy is 72, but he has little cause to dwell on the past. “You’ll see the most amazing left hand on a guitar that you’ll ever see,” he said of King.

Then he went out and showed some of his own amazing work – left hand and right hand – giving his opener, Willie Dixon’s Hoochie Coochie Man, a slow, deliberate beat before exploding into some of his trademark riffs. He continued the bawdy streak with Slippin’ In, then turned softer on Feels Like Rain, an old John Hiatt tune.

“Play some blues,” a fan yelled from the middle seats, which Guy answered good-naturedly with an expletive and this: “That’s why I cut off all my hair: It turned white from trying to please everybody.”

Bluesman Buddy Guy takes his act to the Kravis audience.
(Photo by Thom Smith)

Unswayed, he followed with Skin Deep, an ode to brotherhood – “underneath we are all the same” – after which he strapped on his trademark polka-dot guitar and hit the aisles for 10 minutes of tightly structured mayhem as fans snapped cellular photos and held up treasured album jackets. If he’d had the time, he would have taken the elevator to the upper levels, picking all the way.

Of course, stars don’t do it alone, and Guy’s backup players – the Damn Right Band – has no trouble holding its own. But just as soon as it started, it was time to go – a couple of quick mimics of John Lee Hooker on Boom, Boom and Eric Clapton’s Creamy days with Strange Brew, and he was gone.

The transition from Guy to King was immediately obvious, as setup began for the second set. Guy wore a black warm-up suit and his band wore street clothes. King’s men, actually a big band, sported tuxes. Their charts rested on music stands, and they started the show with a swing number to showcase each member before the big man arrived in a brown sharkskin suit, black patent-leather shoes and 24-karat guitar.

“I’m diabetic, I got bad knees, a bad back, can’t remember anything,” King teased as he plopped into a chair for the evening, “but I do remember I’m 83 years old.”

He also remembered the award from the night before, his 14th. (Guy has won five.) “You’re always glad to get the Grammy,” he added and then swung into a stream of talking and singing blues consciousness that touched on cotton picking, happiness, sex, love, women, and his dislike for the bad treatment of women by some rappers.

He was rough, tender, smart, sassy, defiant – and also contrite.

“I love to laugh,” he told the audience, “and it makes me happier when I see you smile.”

Later he assumed the role of love doctor, advising that “ladies have a way of looking at you when you’re making a fool of yourself. You may not like what they call you, but just don’t leave,” because somebody else will take your place.

King offered up a Grammy-winning sampler with See That My Grave Is Kept Clean, to which some in the audience shouted “Never!”, followed with “a song for the ladies”: You Are My Sunshine, and then extolled the virtues of “Dr. Viagra” and “Nurse Levitra,” adding with a devilish smile, “I may not be as good now as I used to be” before closing with The Thrill Is Gone.

The only real downer of the show was that they two didn’t play together. But as soon as his set ended Guy and his band were in the bus, bound for the next night’s gig in Hilton Head.

King may be 83 and plagued by maladies, but the melodies remain and that left hand that Guy mentioned can still do remarkable things on a guitar.

Thom Smith is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

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