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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Blues King Wears His Crown Well

For a 69-year-old man, the blues singer and guitarist B.B. King does pretty well. He tours the world with his eight-piece band for most of each year. He delivers a show which is energetic and masterful. And he maintains his moniker, King of the Blues, as more than just a colorful title.


All this was in evidence at the Moscow Youth Palace, where King ended a three-week European tour with a two-night stand ending Wednesday. He was in fine form on Tuesday night, delivering a cathartic performance that enthralled the nearly sold-out hall for 1 1/2 hours.


First in his native Mississippi, then throughout the United States, and now internationally, King has for 44 years been playing a style of electric blues that is as compelling as it is unique. Eclipsing others like the late Muddy Waters, he has reached a pop star status -- touring with bands like the Rolling Stones and U2 -- that no other blues performer has approached. Tuesday night it was clear why.


Early in the set, King launched into the slow blues standard "Stormy Monday," a tune made famous by one of his major influences, T-Bone Walker. With the first few notes on his guitar, King took charge and the audience grew instantly quiet. Then, in his sparse, jazzy style, the portly guitarist spent a good 10 minutes exploring the nuances, nooks and crannies of a tune that he must have played thousands of times.


It was the band's talent, tightness and agility that did much to make the show a treat. The band members, some of whom were formerly with Bobby "Blue" Bland's ensemble, were given ample opportunity to display their chops by King, who frequently stepped aside for solos. In particular, the be-bop phrasings of tenor saxophonist Melvin Jackson gave the show breadth.


As a unit, the band's cohesion gave the feel, at times, of listening to Count Basie or Duke Ellington's orchestras at their peak. They chugged along smoothly behind King, who with a nod or a raised hand would stop the band on a dime, pick up the tempo or designate a soloist.


Like King, most of the band members are not young men and have been with his organization for as long as 16 years. The newest, drummer Tony Coleman, has been with the group for four years.


At a press conference Monday night, just after arriving in Moscow from Brussels, King held forth for about an hour in the Palace Hotel, on topics ranging from his analysis of the current blues scene to why he was wearing a Russian fur hat indoors.


A question about the differences between white and black blues musicians elicited a polite but firm lecture from King on the issue of race in music. "I don't like the sound of the question," King said, explaining to a room of some 50 members of the press his dislike for labels. "It has nothing to do with what color they are or who started the music, but how they carry it on."


Much of the conference focused on King's first visit to Russia in 1979, when he spent a month traveling around the Soviet Union. The seeds of his popularity were planted then, said Andrew Gorbatov, a Russian music writer and band manager.


"Fifteen years people have been waiting for him," said Gorbatov. "I want to think that this is not his last visit, but the reality is different. He is already very old."


However, King's legacy, and that of American blues generally, is likely to live long in Russia, judging from the proliferation in Moscow alone of blues bands and blues nightclubs.


"It will absolutely get bigger here," Gorbatov said. "The blues is forever. It is not like pop music. Blues is intelligent and goes into your soul. Pop music never does anything for your soul."