B.B. King’s two-hour set Sunday night in Durham inaugurated the city’s $46.8 million Durham Performing Arts Center with humor, wisdom and the occasional piercing blast from his gleaming black Gibson guitar, Lucille. “I heard I’m the first blues artist they’ve brought in here,” King told the crowd after he sat down in his folding chair at center stage. His sold-out performancewhich began with a standing ovation and ended, deservedly, with another, much louder oneguarantees he’d best not be the last.
Indeed, the performance of both King and his eight-piece, four-hornsmen backing band was remarkably workmanlike, taking nothing for granted and delivering in big, strident solos and bold takes on old favorites. Sure, King kept Lucille slung against his right hip for most of the show. The polished instrument’s glare danced beneath the bright lights above the room’s wide stage and onto the theater’s high wooden walls. But when King would reach for the guitar, his signature, driven tone cut through the 2,800-seat room, lighting the hall in a way that all of the night’s seamless horn charts or even his own baritone bellow couldn’t. King plays fewer notes for less of each show these days, but the veteran of 15,000-plus gigs in 90 countries over the last six decades makes them count, often letting one note hang as the band powers through to the other side of the beat.
Importantly, the band gets that plan: King spent much of the night in medley-and-fireside mode, transitioning between songs through some secret code only the octet seemed to intuit. He spun old-wisdom yarns at length as the band played a slinky, subdued lounge sort of jazz behind him, springing into tunes like “The Thrill is Gone” or his U2 collaboration “When Love Comes to Town” without warning. During a workup of “You Are My Sunshine,” King asked that the couples in the crowd kiss. The house lights went up, and he smiled as he counted to four and watched audience members lean across the armrests of DPAC’s bright red seats. King charmed with self-deprecation regarding his age and health (83, thank you), humored with talk about cheating women and stupid men, and educated with talk about his youth in Mississippi. He leaned heavily on innuendo and offered tips for successful seduction before hitting a more serious tone: King thanked all Americans for “growing up,” an unveiled reference to the slow civil rights shift he’s seen from his birth in 1925 to Barack Obama’s presidential victory last month. The audiencea diverse crowd of young and old, black, white and Latinocheered.
Actually, the audience did a lot of that. King’s generous and playful performance satisfied the crowd in most every way. They were attentive and appreciative, hanging on his every story and laughing at the right jokes.
Trouble is, King’s perfect opening pitch sets a markedly high bar for DPAC’s future. Few performers carry the clout, history and continued commercial viability of the blues King. In fact, his continued success is, in part, a direct result of his survivor status, something he acknowledged Sunday night as he chastised rap’s “treatment of the ladies.” He’s outlasted many of his contemporaries, and he’s treated that vestigial position with élan and enthusiasm. It will be interesting to see if Durham has the people, energy and finances to greet lesser legends and the hottest exports of Broadway.