CEDAR RAPIDS — B.B. King last took the stage at the Paramount Theatre during his 80th birthday tour in 2005. The legendary blues man has celebrated seven more birthdays since then, while the Paramount has been reclaimed from the muddy flood waters of 2008 and returned to its former splendor.
It was a thrill to see them both again on Sunday night (11/18/12).
The meticulously restored theater served as a magnificent backdrop for the King of the Blues and his seven-piece, tuxedo-clad band. While some in the full house may have been disappointed to see the luster has faded from his crown since King’s last appearance in Cedar Rapids, most appreciated the night for what it was: a chance to pay homage to a living legend in the twilight of an exceptional career.
Everyone was feeling the love from the minute Riley B. King first made his appearance. (“B.B.” is short for “Beale Street Blues Boy,” King’s old Memphis nickname.) After a couple of blues revue-style instrumental numbers by his ever-tight backing band, King ambled on stage to a prolonged standing ovation, tossing guitar picks to the crowd as he settled into a chair.
With a voice still as smooth as Tennessee whiskey, he introduced the band, teasing that bandleader and horn player James “Boogaloo” Bolden almost made him lose his job because “he can dance and I can’t.”
King then picked up his trademark Gibson guitar named Lucille (after a woman who was the cause of a long-ago Arkansas bar fight) and started the show with “I Need You So,” which he dedicated to all the lovers in the house. During that and the next two numbers, “Rock Me Baby,” and “Key to the Highway,” King demonstrated he can still make Lucille sing, although the three-piece horn section drowned out his vocals at times.
It was during the second half of his 80-minute, 10-song set that King seemed to lose focus. Apparently distracted by scattered outbursts from the audience – including one woman who loudly proclaimed her love for him, to which he responded, “I’m glad I can’t hear sometimes” – King spent more time talking and cracking jokes than singing or playing guitar. An audience member actually prompted him to finish an audience sing-along version of Jimmie Davis’ “You Are My Sunshine” after King went off on a ramble about women in the middle of the song.
King brought the audience back when he launched into the familiar strains of his classic “The Thrill Is Gone,” but never really found the groove during a somewhat abbreviated version of the song. The final three numbers of the set, “Someone Really Loves You,” “Nobody Loves Me But My Mother” and “Why I Sing the Blues,” also seemed unsatisfyingly incomplete. But King remains a beguiling showman, and his broad grin throughout the night revealed his genuine love of performing for a crowd.
Finally, after cautioning the audience not to “wear yourselves out for when I come back next year,” King signaled the show was over. He remained on stage for several more minutes, shaking hands with those in the front rows, signing autographs and distributing even more guitar picks and other trinkets while the band played on behind him.
Unfortunately, many in the audience already had filed out by the time King was assisted out of his seat, into his overcoat and off the stage. Those who remained rewarded him with another rapturous ovation in sincere appreciation for the man who has been sharing his music and talents with fans for nearly 70 years.
While some may have grumbled, most understood. It was a privilege and a thrill to see that man, in that venue, one more time.
Canadian blues and rock guitarist Anthony Gomes and his band opened the show. During an exuberant 40-minute set of searing guitar and soaring vocals featuring a number of songs from his latest album, “Up 2 Zero,” Gomes proved worthy of his recent Maple Blues Awards nomination for Canada’s Electric Act of the Year.