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O.C. POP REVIEW : B.B.: Still The King of All He Surveys

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When it comes to American treasures, rank B.B. King right up there with the Grand Canyon and baseball. The bluesman is one of the most masterful singers and instrumentalists this nation has produced, and he never seems to take his gifts for granted.

Where rockers of less than half his 66 years moan about the rigors of their chosen craft and often lose their spark, King has kept up a grueling tour schedule through four decades, with many miles of that road pitted by racism and economic exploitation. Yet the passion and artistry he brought to his performance Friday night at the Celebrity Theatre--where he shared the bill with R&B; veterans Ruth Brown and Bobby Bland--was unbowed by those years. Indeed, King seemed more vital than ever.

Resplendent in a light gold dinner jacket that looked like wallpaper from Versailles, the regally portly guitarist, as usual, overwhelmed with his searing solos and thunderously shouted vocals that scarcely needed a microphone to be heard. King maintains one of the hottest road bands extant, and his eight-piece group matched his every nuance and explosive outburst.

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In the late 1960s it was practically a given that every rock and blues guitarist would list King’s epochal “Live at the Regal” as his or her favorite record. The subtle horn-like phrasing, jazzy Django Reinhardt inflections, dramatic structuring and incredible human-cry finger vibrato of King’s playing were unapproachable marvels for fretboard fanatics. And you didn’t need to know diddly about the guitar to feel the way King’s playing sent sparks flying through your soul.

His guitar prowess has only grown since then. Friday he still conjured up the raw, distorted blare of his ‘50s hits, “You Upset Me Baby” and “Sweet Sixteen,” but his playing was all sobs and caresses on “The Thrill Is Gone” and his current “Back in L.A.” featured an inventive jazz flight.

The show’s sole concession to King’s age was that he did nearly half the performance seated, something he wasn’t doing as recently as four months ago. Though seated, he certainly didn’t relax. Every note, sung or strummed, played its emotion across his mobile face.

The warmth and gentleness he brought to his vocal on Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas Baby” seems to be King’s natural state. He takes an evident joy in making his audiences happy. But for all that, his voice also can be as violent and menacing as anything Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf ever did. Such was the case Friday, when he took on the role of a jealous husband in “Don’t Answer the Door,” where he shouts at his wife not even to call a doctor if she’s sick: “Just suffer, suffer, suffer! till I get home.” It’s such a brutally rendered line that at some performances King apologizes to women for voicing it.

As he has for the past couple of years, King ended his set with a wild up-tempo version of U2’s “When Love Comes to Town,” kicking the rhythm with a gospel fervor that epitomized the liberation the Irish group only talks about.

Second-billed Ruth Brown, at 63, still has a lot of her own fervor. While not as passionate a singer as Etta James or New Orleans’ Irma Thomas, Brown has personality to spare, and her voice is still distinctive and expressive enough to do her legend proud. With a recording career stretching back to 1949, she was one of the first stars of R&B.;

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Being an R&B; star, of course, entitled her to be cheated of her earnings and discarded by the music industry when it was done with her. But in a happy turn that happens all too rarely, Brown in recent years actually received restitution from her old record label, and her career also has taken off a second time, boosted by a Tony-winning role in Broadway’s “Black and Blue.”

Garbed in a shimmering gold gown and long coat, Brown told the Celebrity audience, “I can remember when R&B; stood for Ruth Brown,” while also acknowledging those days are long past. As she told one fan: “Baby, if you remember me, you’re about senile is what you are.”

But Brown did a splendid job of conjuring up those past times, both in song and in stories. She only sang six songs during her 50-minute set, filling the rest with repartee and recollections of her early days.

She prefaced her 1954 hit “Oh What a Dream” with an evocative remembrance of the days when, instead of concert halls, she would perform in Southern warehouses, with the flatbeds of two tobacco trucks used for a stage. Her audiences were sharecroppers, she said. “We’d play what we called ‘coffee grinding’ music for them,” she said, “which meant moving from the waist down.”

Lent excellent support by her band--aptly titled the Friends of Ruth Brown--she sang her early ‘50s hits “5-10-15 Hours” and “Teardrops From My Eyes” as well as interpretations of “I’m Just a Lucky So and So” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” That latter song best displayed her voice, ranging from a mellifluous contralto to the curiously cracked shout that earned her the nickname, “the girl with the tear in her voice.”

Bobby (Blue) Bland sadly seems to have an irreparable tear in his voice, and performed Friday with merely the remnants of what once was one of the finest blues voices ever. Listen to his Duke label recordings from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, and you’ll hear an incredible singer whose voice could swell from a persuasive whisper to a sky-rending scream.

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But for years now, whenever he even begins to reach for his old shouting majesty, what comes out instead even charitably can only be called a nasal snort. Perhaps as a result of that, Bland’s performance often seemed indifferent: On such songs as “I Pity the Fool” and “Farther On up the Road,” there were only snorts or gaps where he didn’t even bother trying to hit the notes he can no longer reach. That’s a shame, because on his softer ballad material he proved he still has a suasive voice. If he were to concentrate on working within that limited dynamic he could still be an engaging performer.

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