B.B. King - Cardiff International Arena
I know you are never supposed to meet your heroes but I hadn’t appreciated that this logic was now extended to never seeing them play live too. Hmm, what to say about the legend that is B.B. King tonight, well, did you ever hear about the little girl? The one with the curl right in the middle of her forehead? Well, like her, when he’s good he’s very, very good but when he’s bad he’s horrid.
Looking back on the show in the cool blue light of the morning after I wonder if it was the fault of the audience that this show failed to take flight but, no, they were lapping up the full frontal blues excess of support act John Mayall and his band of musos. That set ended in an uproarious standing ovation whereas B.B. just about manages to keep most of the crowd politely on his side. Not all of them though as a steady trickle leave the hall throughout the set – never before have I heard a headline act cursed by so many.
It wasn’t meant to be like this; as B.B. frequently reminds us, he is a legend and he’s 83 years old. So we expect him to be pacing himself tonight and, sure enough, when his band of immaculately turned out blues masters hit the stage he’s nowhere to be seen for over 10 minutes. This isn’t a problem as the band knows how to shake up a crowd, and by the time the King arrives Cardiff is in party mood. The first thing you notice with B.B. is that the voice is still there, age hasn’t diminished the power of his delivery, although 20 years of diabetes has left him confined to performing while seated. A full 20 minutes after the band hit the stage B.B. finally coaxes ‘Lucille’ into some action and boy can he make that guitar sing. His phrasing is wonderful and when he’s in full flow the years begin to tumble away.
The problem, and it really is a big problem, is that he never really allows the show to get into any kind of flow. It is constantly punctuated by, quite frankly, dull anecdotes and observations which just serve to kill the mood. In the middle of the set he spends 20 minutes recounting a woeful tale of how men and women just don’t treat each other right, 20 minutes without playing a song. Even Ken Dodd would blanche at this and it is clearly too much for some to bear. B.B.obviously catches some thunderstruck faces, making reference to people being impatient and unhappy with him but nothing changes. Occasionally he breaks into a tune but, invariably, he kills it before it has begun to carry the crowd. One hurdle is that there just aren’t that many numbers that people automatically associate with B.B. King and so he can’t really resort to crowd pleasing hits, although When Love Comes to Town is an obvious exception right? Wrong.
We know it is coming as he starts another rambling monologue about Bono writing the song for him but we are not prepared for his punchline, which is – I don’t play it like Bono wrote it. Fair play to him, he isn’t lying as the resulting performance bears no resemblance to his best known hit of recent years. He then plays You are my Sunshine for the ladies but spends 10 minutes berating rappers for denigrating women and only 2 minutes playing the song. It is a Cardiff City terrace favourite but, too late, the show is beyond salvation. It ends not with a bang but with a lot of confused head scratching. The really sad and perverse thing is, I think he knew what he was doing all along. Cardiff certainly got the blues tonight, but it isn’t going to be something to sing about. Well at least I can say I’ve seen him one puzzled punter says to me as his wife sprints for the exit. Always look on the bright side of life.