God Bless B.B. King

May 16, 2015

Smilin-BB-King

A great talent and a great human being moved on to somewhere else this past Thursday. We knew this day would come eventually, yet B.B. King’s passing nonetheless leaves a huge hole in our hearts.

You could pick out dozens, hundreds, perhaps even thousands of memorable performances (the man toured almost constantly, playing more than 300 dates a year into his 80s), and I wouldn’t even try to pick out The One. I first heard his music when I bought his 1970 album, “Indianola, Mississippi Seeds,” his 18th studio album, and even today, all I need to do is hear that aching piano (that’s him playing) that opens the album with “Nobody Loves Me But My Mother,” or the swelling strings swinging into “Ain’t Gonna Worry My Life Anymore” and I can feel my spirit lift.

His playing could be fiery or sweet or bone-chillingly sad, and it was unfailingly brilliant. You could hear songs like his signature tune “How Blue Can You Get” over and over and they would never sound like he was going through the motions.

I only heard him live a couple of times, but I did get the chance to interview him for my radio program back in 1981 when he came to Burlington, Vt. He played the Flynn theater, and we talked a little before the show. He was every inch a gentleman and quite funny. Later, he led us around the corner to Hunt’s, the legendary Burlington music club, where he walked in around midnight and took the stage next to Big Joe Burrell, who had been one of his sidemen. What a night.

There are touching eulogies all over. Here are a few:

From Bonnie Raitt – http://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/bonnie-raitt-on-b-b-king-he-was-a-god-20150516

NPR – http://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2015/05/15/406969376/b-b-king-and-the-majesty-of-the-blues

Rolling Stone – http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/b-b-king-blues-legend-dead-at-89-20150515

NY Times – http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/16/arts/music/b-b-king-blues-singer-dies-at-89.html?_r=0

And an interview on PBS:

http://www.pbs.org/americanrootsmusic/pbs_arm_oralh_bbking.html

For myself, I will just recommend listening to the album he thought was his most significant artistic achievement:

Love, Peace, and Deepest Thanks for all you gave us, Mr. King.

Later,

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Listening to the Grateful Dead, and to America

May 5, 2015

150505-dead-warlocks-jhc-1227_7d1deec8d97df1fe005076448a94c9e1.nbcnews-ux-1360-900

50 years ago today, the Warlocks, later to become the Grateful Dead, play their first gig together at Magoo’s Pizza Parlor, 639 Santa Cruz Avenue, Menlo Park.

Much has been written about this band, and know up front I’m a Deadhead (how would I know about today if I wasn’t, right?). It’s fashionable to look askance or even down on the Dead and the entire hippie ethos as a bunch of woozy stoners, but that’s far off the mark. The Dead were serious and careful about their art, but they also had that spark-of-genius spontenaity that drove some of their best performances. This is a band that, while tight with one another, would come onstage in their early years without a set list. They’d start to play and follow the moment, and their musicianship (okay, they couldn’t sing all that well, but most rock bands wouldn’t have cut it at La Scala, either) would carry them along.

More importantly, if you actually listened, you realized you were listening to America. The Dead’s music melded blues, jazz, Tin Pan Alley, bluegrass, country, and rock ‘n’ roll into a sound that is unmistakeable. They also had the kind of optimistic, try-anything energy that, wrapped around around the music itself produced the stuff of legends, Walt Whitman with electric guitars.

Sometimes, they’d miss the mark. Every band has off nights. But when they were on, as they were far more often than not, they were incandescent, transcendent. Moreover, that feeling didn’t stay onstage; it poured over and through the audience.

I remember seeing them live in Maine in 1980, and just before they came onstage, some guys were pushing and shoving to get to the front, and two of them looked like they were about to come to blows. A young woman just in front of them turned and smiled and said, “hey, this is a Grateful Dead concert.” The two guys looked at each other and kinda went, “yeah, she’s right,” and that was the end of it.

As for looking down on hippies, well, despite all the stumbling and wrong turns, I’ll take that vision over a whole lot else I’ve come across these 60+ years. If we didn’t completely succeed, perhaps that’s because we were outnumbered by people who didn’t want to try to get past where they were. But the vision keeps popping up, sometimes when we need it most, as with the whole Occupy movement, that ragtag gaggle that got the world talking about economic inequality. It’s always too soon to give up hope, and that’s what it was about in the first place.

Thanks, Dead, for everything. The road goes ever on . . .

Later,