Who better to take a close look at two great musicians than a fellow musician? John Harrison was on hand when young Queen of the Blues Ana Popovic opened for THE King of the Blues in Bonn this week at the Museumsplatz, Mr BB King.
B.B. King in Bonn 11.07.2011
Even at twenty minutes to six there is a rather orderly, yet undeniably long queue, stretching over the distance that even a world class sprinter would require at least thirty second’s worth of distance won. It’s a rather hot summer’s afternoon and most of the queue are quite content, and in the shade. The Austrian architect Gustav Peichl was responsible for the shade, and although providing shade for seemingly thousands of Blues fans was probably not in his original remit for these remarkable buildings, he did it just the same.
The reason for the gentle hubbub? The “old man’s” in town. Mr. Riley King, better known as B.B. (Blues Boy) King is blessing us with his presence. Most people his age have been retired for at least two decades, but Mr. King is still paying the cost for being “The Boss”.
He has always liked Jazz and Country and Gospel and he was so hypnotised by the big Jazz bands that he “stole” the lines of their trumpet players in call and response style and put those melodies on to the single strings of an electric guitar. Hugh Laurie recently intimated it was the acoustic Blues guitarist Scrapper Blackwell who first pioneered modern single string lead guitar playing whilst accompanying the piano of his musical partner Leroy Carr, and that is true. It was, however, ultimately B.B. King who amplified his guitar and applied that left finger vibrato tremolo effect to emulate the sound that other guitarists only achieved with a bottle neck.
The result: when B.B. King plays 10 notes on the guitar, and you hear it passively on the radio, the chances are, you know who it is after only six.
There are many millions of guitarists in the world and most of them you could listen to for eternity, without ever telling them apart. Carlos Santana is another guitar rarity like B.B. He also has an instantly recognisable way of playing lead guitar. Carlos, himself a wise old sage once said about American music genres,
“Rock and Roll is a swimming pool, the Blues are a lake, but Jazz is an ocean.”
B.B. has been taking a Jazz band on the road with “Boogaloo” James Boldon on trumpet and as the band leader for over thirty years now. It used to be a 14-15 piece band, so that it wouldn’t be immediately apparent to people what he was actually doing. As an eight piece, as it now is, it’s still a damn fine Jazz band and we get to hear all of the fine musicians before finally B.B. joins them along with “Lucille”, his black Gibson ES 335 to sit in with the band, and “just play Blues, like he always has,” for more than sixty-five years now.
The quiet, wondrous grace of the man, reminds one almost of Nelson Mandela, and some unknown wise old soul that once walked out of Africa on a difficult journey, but always somehow subconsciously aware that musical accompaniment oft times lightens life’s heavy burden. B.B. is so old and wise even his nephew Walter Riley King who plays sax with the band is grey already!
So two people on the bill with somewhat difficult childhoods.
A black man growing up in Mississippi in the early part of the 20th Century, and a white woman growing up in Serbia in the latter part of the 20th Century. Both quite potentially frightening places to spend one’s childhood. Sometimes though, “out of adversity, comes opportunity” and this is seldom so true as when it’s in a musical context, and especially so, when that music is the Blues.
I’ve heard a lot about Ana Popovic before, but never actually heard her play and sing. The 1964 sunburst Strat is on, and the bottleneck glistens along the single strings, instantly creating a sound with a virtuosity B.B. had to spend a long lifetime copying without a bottle neck. This lady can, and certainly does, ring the strings. This guitar is certainly not a fashion accessory. For the next number she changes to the red Mexican Fender Stratocaster, her first Strat, which she plays a little quieter, but with so much feeling.
The band could hardly be more international for a four piece and could even be a United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) combo. On the drums Stephane Avellanada lays down a mean biting backbeat, and proves that only a Frenchman can play percussion that well, whilst still looking cool in a hat. Ronald Jonker from the Netherlands, Ana’s current adopted home country, chips in with a funky 5 string bass and the more recent addition to the band, James Pace from the USA on keyboards not only cheekily echoes some of Ana’s guitar licks but also treats the keys as a percussive, and not just melodic, musical interface, which reminded me of Keith Emerson from his early Nice days.
Ana writes most her own songs, including the soulful ballad “Song for M” about her Dutch husband Mark. She does, however, do a cover of Blues giant Big Mama Thornton’s classic, and one of Keith Richard’s personal favourites “You Don’t Move Me”.
My own favourite of her set was “Navjo Moon” an instrumental song of hers dedicated not only to the native American Indian tribe of the same name, but also to two of her guitar mentors, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Ronnie Earl. Jeff Beck is one of my favourite guitarists and I could imagine a jam with Jeff and Ana on „Navajo Moon“ would be more than a little special one day.
Ana’s final track is called „Hold on“ and is about a European citizen’s experience about trying to obtain a visa at the US Embassy Visa section in Frankfurt am Main to enter the USA post 7/11. It sure is a good job she’s got that bottleneck Fender bender to get all that pent up vitriol out of her system!
“Good morning America ! You have a wake up call coming ! How are you ?”
It was a refreshment to see that Ana existed, and we wish her all the very best, especially with her new CD “ Unconditional” which is out on the 17th of August, but for now Riley was in town, and when HE “called”, he really wanted a “response”, AND he certainly got one.
It’s difficult for anyone to play the Blues. It’s a very basic, simple kind of music, with sometimes only one, or sometimes two or three chords. It’s a kind of stealth music, which everyone knows and is preconditioned to, but is never actually played anywhere, any more. It’s acknowledged a lot, but is often today never seen as more than a means to an end, rather than an end or a means in itself.
B.B. King plays the Blues, like he always has, and always will do! With the intrinsic knowledge that he is very, very good at what he does.
„When you need me“
„Everyday I have the Blues“
and when Tony Coleman on the drums first gets featured and then gets a little bit wild and too fancy, the old man says with a twinkle in his eye, “ Do you want to get cut son? I’m an old guitar player from Mississippi, ……..
and I love to cut!”
This mentality went up from rural Mississippi up to urban Chicago and Muddy Water’s band in Chicago were well known as the “Headhunters”, not recruiting high powered bankers or financial managers. They just asked politely if they might borrow the instruments and play a song or two of whoever the musicians were in the establishment, where they just happened to be in that night?
Bad news if you said “yes!”, because you were going to get “cut” big time.
Then we had the old Big Bill Broonzy classic eight-bar Blues, “Key to the Highway” in which B.B. sings “give me one more kiss darlin’” like he really means it. Later as a stage technician sprints across the length of the stage to successfully avert dreadful, impending whining feedback, he turns around and says simply, “I wish I could run that fast!”
and muses after „Rock Me Baby“ perhaps “two white horses” would be appropriate ? (“to take me to my burial ground one day”)
The characteristic hallmark clapping of the right hand fist into the palm of the left hand again and it matters not one iota if Bukka White’s cousin has done 14000 or 16000 performances, or if he’s recorded 50 or 100 Blues albums, during his long career, we don’t need to guess who the Blues man is, he’s B.B. King and the Thrill has not yet gone.
“The Thrill Is Gone” was originally written by Rick Darnell and Roy Hawkins in 1951 and recorded by B.B. King in 1969, and has since become his signature tune. B.B. maintains that “The Thrill Is Gone” is the only one of his songs that earned him the true recognition and airplay and respect, in his own right, in the States that he duly deserved. Otherwise, he only tended to get airplay for his music if he did collaborations with famous white musicians, often half his age. He plays it for us tonight and we are all in awe. Sure there have been Gospel and Blues tunes before in minor keys, like “Motherless Child” and “St. James Infirmary” but this was the first one in a minor seventh key and B.B. still sings and plays this tune like he owns it, and he does. The Thrill has certainly not left B.B. even after eighty-five years. He’s simply some one who really cares, for all of us.
For the last song of the evening B.B. chose the classic New Orleans Jazz stanadard that Louis Armstrong made so famous in the 1930s “ When The Saints Go Marching In” and he lets his band revert back full circle to being a damn fine Jazz band again as the King of Blues drowns in a well deserved ocean of applause from the appreciative audience of thousands on the Bonn Museumplatz.
– Review John Harrison
– Photos John Hurd