B.B. King brings the blues to Baton Rouge

Even before B.B. King and his seven-piece band stepped on stage Saturday night at the River Center Theatre, people walked up front in a steady line to shoot photos.

Why were they taking photos of a stage that had no one on it? A closer look revealed the wood-and-steel beauty that was the object of their attention. They aimed their cameras at a Gibson guitar with an ebony finish, pearl-block fingerboard inlay and golden hardware. As the amateur photographers got their shots, the instrument waited in silent repose for the master who would come make it sing.

As the story goes, King, the Mississippi-born, 87-year-old king of the blues, was performing for a dance in Arkansas in 1949 when two men started fighting. During the ruckus, a barrel of burning kerosene that heated the room spilled its flaming contents. The blazing liquid spread over the floor.

King found out the next day that the resulting fire killed two people. He also learned that the men whose brawl led to the tragedy had fought over a woman named Lucille. King named his guitar after that woman. Doing so was a note of caution, a reminder to never fight over a female and never reenter a burning building, even if he had left his precious guitar in the joint.

Following a pair of hot instrumentals from the B.B. King Blues Band, blues hero King made his River Center Theatre entrance Saturday, tossing showers of guitar picks into the front rows and then, as he got to center stage, placing both hands over his heart.

King took the seat he’d remain in for the concert’s entirety. Humble and gracious, he welcomed the full house, saying, “Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for coming out to be with us.”

King seemed a bit weary, but even though he’s played 10,000 gigs in his lifetime, happy to be on yet another stage in another town.

He and the band had been out for six weeks, King said, and after their Sunday night show in New Orleans, they’ll get a three-week break prior to even more touring. The group’s 2013 schedule includes its opening-day show April 28 at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Despite his 14 Grammy awards, King told the audience that he’s still trying to get “I Need You So,” his first song of the night, right. Regardless of his dissatisfaction with himself, the affection King expressed in love songs and the depth of hurt he conveyed, for example, when he sang, “nobody loves me, nobody seems to care,” went straight to the heart of the matter.

A guitarist who’s been the model for aspiring blues and rock guitarists since the 1950s, King performed many solos through the night, including an intro to his rendition of Willie Nelson’s “Night Life.”

While many guitarists are indecipherable from one another, a single note from King reveals exactly who’s bending the strings. As always, he produced his bell-like tones and his powerful vibrato and elegant glides.

King doesn’t play continuously. He doesn’t deal in quantity of notes. King plays phrases separated by silence. In music terminology, silences are called rests. Much can be said in silence. King will also play ever so delicately, tenderly, as if he were engaged in hushed conversation.

King’s River Center concert tended to ramble, both musically and during his between-song banter with the audience. But the set nonetheless included, for instance, his 1970 crossover hit, “The Thrill Is Gone,” and a solid rendition of “Rock Me Baby,” a blues standard originally popularized by King and later taken up by such admiring youngsters as Jimi Hendrix and Johnny Winter.

As the clock ticked well past 10 p.m., even after the music stopped, King remained seated on stage, expressing his gratitude, saying he’d like to go on and on. As long as the blues is played somewhere in the universe, he will go on and on.

One of Baton Rouge’s blues artists, singer-guitarist Lil’ Ray Neal, opened the show with a band featuring multiple members of the Neal family of blues singers and musicians. Ray Neal, of course, is a natural-born blues man who’s obviously learned his lessons from his late father, singer-harmonica player Raful Neal, as well as Saturday night’s celebrated headliner.