Three's a Charm
The variety of blues lined up for this year's B.B. King Blues and Barbecue Festival makes for an exciting bill. Susan Tedeschi opens the show as an up-and-coming, third-generation blues singer and guitarist from Boston, Massachusetts, about as far out of the Mississippi Delta as she could hail. Yet with only two albums to her credit, Tedeschi's set may be the most ambitious and satisfying of the three. Buddy Guy, a name synonymous with Chicago blues, especially with his emphasis on the extended guitar jam and his self-anointed title as father of feedback, picks up the energy level in the middle. Finally lifetime Delta musician B.B. King takes the stage to offer some perspective on all that's gone before. His set may seem the most perfunctory, but its easy power is unforgettable.
What makes this show even more rewarding is that the artists seem invigorated by the collaboration. Tedeschi, in particular, the elegant and beautiful young protégée of these seasoned bluesmen, has repeatedly been invited out to perform with each of them during their sets. Her enthusiasm and respect for her fellow artists seems to make the veterans feel young, and she brings out the best in them. With Buddy Guy she's offered a gentle counterpoint to his gorgeous ballad It Feels Like Rain. With King a recent guitar-picking tradeoff prompted King to enthuse, Bonnie Raitt ain't got nuthin' on you!
Be that as it may, Tedeschi does turn in a fine, well-rounded set with her own band. Although she's a bit of a wailer, her sense of control makes the approach work. Unlike many white blues players, Tedeschi understands the value of understatement, the added poignancy of a cry that's been suppressed or sublimated by a well-placed note. And her appreciation and admiration for Raitt is made plain by her set closer, a gorgeous Angel from Montgomery. Like Raitt, Tedeschi offers blues that is studied, subtle, and sophisticated.
By contrast Buddy Guy shakes things up. His versions of Got My Mojo Workin' and Hoochie Coochie Man are refreshingly raunchy. Before a recent version of that second song, he shouted, I just want to get so funky you can smell it! As if to literally make good on his promise, he likes to take long strolls through the crowd, playing directly to individual members of the audience. The one artist on the bill more notable as a guitar player than as a singer (though his voice is fine in its own right), Guy lets his axe screech and wail enough to satisfy any blues-guitar jones. Guy also uses his set to give an overview of blues guitar history, playing snippets of Eric Clapton, T-Bone Walker, Albert King, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, complete with personal commentary on the influence of each player. This is fun and interesting; this also may be the point when Guy's set begins dwindling rather than building to a satisfying climax.
But that's all right, because the night belongs to B.B. King. And though he's traded his tuxes for looser, more comfortable clothes, and though he now sits down through his set, his presence dominates the stage (despite an eight-piece band accompanying him) nearly as powerfully as it did in his prime. At a Kansas City show during the festival's current trek across the United States, he apologized for his relaxed approach early in the set, explaining, My band tells me, at 74, I've earned the right to sit down if I want to. A reverent crowd cheered, just happy to see the man still doing what he does best.
Besides, sitting down doesn't hurt how he sings or how he plays. King's voice cries for joy, weeps, and sighs, all without losing its unfaltering sense of control. Likewise the brilliant tone of his guitar, Lucille, still speaks with an equally broad range of emotion. The highlights of his all-too-brief set come, naturally, toward the end, with The Thrill Is Gone and Every Day I Have the Blues, two ringers that manage an appropriate ending to such a regal performance.
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