October 6, 2012


BB King at 87: the last of the great bluesmen : BB King, who has just turned 87, has returned home to Mississippi to play to family and friends. In the experience of a lifetime, Ed Vulliamy joins him and hears from the maestro about his rise from the cotton fields to international stardom (Ed Vulliamy, 10/06/12, The Observer)

Backed now by a lilac glow in the western sky - and looking east towards the village of Itta Bena, where he was born - BB sits down and starts up the show. He reaches "Key to the Highway", and there it is: that one long and trembling note, hanging there in the wafts of barbecue smoke, like only BB King can play it. He rolls his eyes, raises his eyebrows, then stares out into the crowd - and there's a collective gasp, a ripple of applause, and a mutual bond of affection.

This is a huddle, not a crowd, really. The town has come to hear its famous son: mostly black people - in families, many with a picnic - plus a few whites with ponytails, ZZ Top beards or other gestures of nonconformity. There are people here like Alfred Knox - one of 11 children with eight of his own (and 21 grandchildren) - who left Mississippi for Milwaukee when he was 19, the sound of Honeyboy Edwards playing juke joints ringing in his ears, and has now come back with his nephew Gervis to hear BB, to hear and talk blues, talk politics. The usual jocks and suits who wave bottles of Bud and shout at tourist clubs like BB King's own franchise in Memphis are not here for this annual homecoming concert - oddly, but thank God.

Nor, indeed, are some of Indianola's good citizens. Latunya and her friend were in the post office earlier, and said how "We're real excited BB's coming back. Gee, I'd lo-o-ove to go see him play. But I go out Fridays. I don't go out Wednesdays, I only go out Fridays". This is also the town in which the White Citizens Council was formed, political wing of the Ku Klux Klan; and the founders' heirs are probably elsewhere tonight.

The maestro's sonority on guitar is as inimitably perfect as ever. After one long, searing note during "The Thrill is Gone", BB King darts the stare of a clown right into the front rows, as though to say: "How about that!?" But it is BB's voice on the warm breeze that stops a heartbeat - that feeling behind and between the words that is the quintessence of the blues.
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Posted by at October 6, 2012 7:41 PM

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