Big-hearted blues god B.B. King offers guitar picks and hugs backstage in Vancouver

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, AUG. 13, 1998

“Come on in!” urged B.B. King to the gaggle of well-wishers and autograph hounds gathered outside his dressing room in the bowels of GM Place. It was 12:30 a.m., about 45 minutes after King had finished his set on the first night of the 44-date B.B. King Blues Festival tour. “I’ve got a bunch of photos here that I can sign for anybody,” he announced, holding up a stack of 8-by-10 promo shots, “and there’s a big pile of guitar picks for anybody that wants one.”

While more high-falutin’ superstars would have been sipping cognac in their hotel-room Jacuzzis by then, the 72-year-old King of the Blues was making sure that he pressed the flesh with some of his more devoted followers. My older sister Marnie—a King fanatic who recently cleaned up at a karaoke contest crooning “The Thrill Is Gone”—was beside herself at the prospect of meeting her idol, and when the time came to pay her respects, all she could manage was a choked-up “I love you.” A bewildered B.B. responded with a mile-wide smile and a fatherly bear hug, which was in keeping with his whole after-show aura.

To me, it’s that kind of attitude that separates the truly great artists from the merely famous ones.

Of course, you didn’t need a backstage pass to experience the wondrous spirit of King; any ticket to last Friday’s (August 7) gig would have sufficed. An appreciative  crowd of 4,000 witnessed the living legend in the company of a razor-sharp showband that sported two dangerous drummers and a three-piece horn section. After a couple of songs, the massive Mississippian opted for the comfort of a padded chair, but his relaxed posture didn’t diminish his roaring vocals or silky-smooth, vibrato-based guitar style. It only gave the genial entertainer cause to poke bug-eyed fun at his long-standing position as one of the elder statesmen of the blues.

Highlights of King’s set included such faves as “Rock Me Baby”, “Night Life”, and the show-closing “The Thrill Is Gone”, all of which are featured—with respective contributions by Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, and Tracy Chapman—on King’s latest CD, Duets.

As enjoyable as King’s headlining gig was, though, it couldn’t top that by his onstage predecessors, the Neville Brothers. The New Orleans–based outfit concocted an enchanting blend of southern-flavoured soul that—when laced with the spine-tingling falsetto of Aaron Neville—was nothing short of magical. Before them, veteran singer-keyboardist Dr. John playfully dabbed his superfunky fingers on a world-beat canvas, and newcomers Storyville kicked things off with some rough-edged Texas blues-rock.

All in all, the B.B. King Blues Festival proved to be an excellent package deal for blues-minded folks on the lookout for variety.

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