B.B. King Plays the Blues at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami, January 4

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B.B. King

Knight Concert Hall

Adrienne Arsht Center, Miami

Wednesday, January 4, 2011

Better Than: A nice, big bottle of chilled Arbor Mist.

A half-century ago, Riley "Blues Boy" King and his fine, fat-bodied guitar, Lucille, would make regular wintertime trips to Miami for some rockin', rollin', dancin', drinkin', and laughin' at famous joints like The Harlem Square Club in Overtown, The Palms in Hallandale, and Club Downbeat in Goulds.

These days, though, Mr. King is an octogenarian roots music legend. So he ain't runnin' around the Chitlin Circuit no more. He's traveling by Town Car to performing arts centers across America.

And last night, ol' B.B. and Lucy (or maybe her younger sister) had a one-night stand at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Downtown Miami, gettin' wild and makin' a blues baby while the entire Knight Concert Hall watched, whistled, and cheered.

The evening began at 8 p.m. sharp when the seven-man B.B. King Blues Band rolled out onto the concert hall's stage without its namesake, jamming through a mellow fifteen-minute instrumental set of jazzy blues as the Arsht's ushers seated all kinds of chronically tardy Miami types.

Each member of B.B.'s band was decked out in formal attire with a little flash. The gentleman on keys, Ernest Vatrease, wore a crisp tuxedo and bow tie. His equally dapper brother on bass, Reggie Richards, plucked a candy-red six-string while drummer Tony Coleman rocked a silvery vest, collarless dress shirt, and mirrored aviator glasses.

Grey-haired guitar player Charlie Dennis looked slick in tux, tie, shades, golden vest, and a big 24-karat loop earring. And then off to the side, there was that handsome brass trio: band leader James "Boogaloo" Bolden as well as sax player (and the main man's nephew) Walter Raleigh King, plus trumpeter Stanley Abernathy.

Once the whole place was finally neatly seated, it was Boogaloo's cue. And he stepped up to the mike to boomingly announce, "Now we bring to the stage, the King of the Blues, B.B. King!" And it was time to get up again. And shout. And applaud. And show some love.

Every man, woman, and child in the house gave B.B. a standing ovation as he shuffled out, wearing a multicolor tuxedo jacket splashed with gold, just smiling wide, shrugging to the beat, and flicking branded B.B. guitar picks into the crowd as if he were throwing Aces at his best friends.

After a couple of minutes, the King took his place upon that trademark throne (a simple black chair at center stage), picked up his big black guitar, and led his big bad band through an introductory tune that ended when ol' Blues Boy whispered, "Evening, ladies and gentlemen."

Laying down the standard routine for the rest of the show, B.B. introduced his crew, tossing out wisecracks, one-liners, namedrops, remembrances, and stream-of-consciousness commentary.

He joked about Boogaloo's dancing skills. He teased drummer Tony Coleman about coming from "a chicken coop in Jacksonville" and their feud over who's got the "bigger, um, feet." He demanded applause for Ernest, Reggie, Walter, and Stanley.

And he complained about guitar player Charlie Dennis gettin' all the chicks, saying, "If any of you gentleman got ladies who like guitar music, don't let 'em come down front. Because when we put a little heat out there, the ladies start parading and they stop in front of Charlie and start disrobing. You know, he's a good guitar player. But he's not such a good sport. He doesn't share."

With everybody acquainted, the King introduced himself. "Now, who's that talking? It's me, 86 years old," he said with a whistle. "I never thought I'd be this old! If you didn't starve to death, somebody beat you to death ... But I made it."

And kicking off his hourlong set, B.B. howled in that raw, rich, mature-man-with-urgent-needs voice, "When day is done/Oh, I need you so!/I long to hear your lil'/Knock upon the door," punctuating his pleas with kissing sounds as the band surged, simmered, and soloed, eventually climaxing in a bright flash of brass.

Next came a strutting, heartsick stab at "Every Day I Have the Blues," the smoldering "Darlin' You Know I Love You," B.B.'s bawdy, purple-eyed "Rock Me Baby," followed by the funky, bluesy fire of "When Love Comes to Town" and some seasonal blues with "Merry Christmas, Baby."

Sure, the King sang, "I haven't had a drink this evening/But I'm all lit up like a Christmas tree." But still, ol' B.B. was in a boozin' mood, shouting out his favorite kind of wine cooler. "Man, let's get outta here and grab an Arbor Mist," B.B. nodded as the audience's sophisticated sippers with a sweet tooth shouted in agreement. "Now you can tell who the drinkers are!" he laughed.

Right in the middle of a song, B.B. would reminisce about basking in moonshine. "Let's say we're in Mississippi and it's Saturday night ... We used to make liquor down there. We made good liquor. Oh, boy."

Or he'd tell tales about partying with movie stars. "I went to a party one night when Humphrey Bogart was very ill. He said, 'I want a drink.' And they said, 'Don't give him nothing. He's sick!' But Mrs. Bogart said, "Give him what he wants." And you know, he got his drink. But I never got mine."

And that's the dynamic of a night with the 86-year-old King. His guitar skills have obviously been slowed by age, diabetes, and a long life rockin', rollin', and playin' the blues. So, as much as the big man, his fine fat-bodied guitar, and their famously beautiful blues, this show's about B.B. the star, the legend, the King.

Each song starts with some skipping, rolling, blazing verse-chorus-verse. But then he tells the band to quiet down and he tosses out those wisecracks, one-liners, namedrops, remembrances, some stream-of-consciousness commentary, and even bits of romantic wisdom ("Ladies are born beautiful angels, all of them, and then when they get to be a certain age, they really kill you") before bringing it all back to a boiling blues and a big finish.

Sometimes the moment meanders or gets a little lost. But B.B. always knows the way home.

The King and crew rollicked through "Key to the Highway" and his still-scorching classic cut "The Thrill Is Gone."

By 9:33 p.m., though, the house lights came up. And B.B. moaned, "They told me what time I'm supposed to get down ... There are two over there and two over there," he added, playfully pointing toward the Arsht's ushers. "You know what that means? Get down, B.B. King!

"But I'm not ready to go," he hollered. "Are you?" And it was time to get up again. And shout. And applaud. And show some love.

"There's something," B.B. whispered, "I wanted to tell you before we go."

And then crooning, the King told us, "Someone really loves you/Guess who, guess who ... Someone will wail eternally, eternally/Someone who'll need your love, oh, so desperately ... Open your heart/Oh, then surely you'll see/That the someone who really cares is me."

He laid down his guitar, stood up with some help, slipped into his fedora and overcoat, shouted "Goodbye, all!," and tossed those B.B.-branded picks, tiny trinkets, and other kingly mementos into the crowd. He signed record sleeves and posters, blew kisses, shook hands. And finally, ol' Blues Boy shuffled offstage for that drink he never got at the Bogarts.

Critic's Notebook

Random Fact, According to B.B. King: "This blues singer has never been able to dance."

Overheard in the Crowd: Eager audience member shouts, "The Thrill Is Gone!" And B.B. replies, "Yes, it is!"

B.B. King's Playlist

-"I Need You So"

-"Every Day I Have the Blues"

-"Darlin' You Know I Love You"

-"Rock Me Baby"

-"When Love Comes to Town"

-"Merry Christmas, Baby"

-"Key to the Highway"

-"The Thrill Is Gone"

-"Guess Who?"

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