"I don't ever want to retire," BB King said when he was 42. "As long as I'm a man, I want to play." At 80, though, even one of the blues' hardest- and longest-working men has to face his limitations. So King starts his final UK tour tonight.
It is the end of an era that began so long ago that his first run of hits was derailed by the advent of Elvis Presley. It is King's misfortune, in a way, that he was put back on track by collaborations with the young Rolling Stones, then Eric Clapton, then U2. Along with his accommodating nature, it has given the impression that he is the white rockers' token bluesman, where the likes of John Lee Hooker, equally beholden to similar largesse, sustained an air of authentic danger.
However showbiz King's trappings are today, though, this does him a terrible disservice. When he first gained a Stones-primed white audience in 1967, he already had 20 great years behind him in tough ghetto clubs, then turning their backs on the blues that is all he can and will play.
His alternative to rock's embrace was destitution. And, having started as a cotton-picker in the segregated South, forcing white respect with his elegant, iconoclastic blend of swing and piercing blues was, he said when it happened, "like riding in the front of the bus for the first time". BB stands for Blues Boy, and the man standing before us for perhaps the last time tonight is the real thing.
It's symptomatic, I suppose, that this final tour has been packaged as a co-headliner with sometime Thin Lizzy guitarist Gary Moore, yet another well-meaning white acolyte. There's a good deal of high-class vamping from King's band, too, before he finally takes the stage, to an immediate standing ovation. Rotund, seated, bathed in yellow light, he chats casually for a few minutes, turning the Arena into an intimate club. Then his voice, as special in its way as his guitar, barks and dives into "I Need You So" and we are away.
His band, including second guitarist Charlie Dennis, take a lot of the weight, heavy on brass and Van Treese's church-schooled organ. King, like latterday Miles Davis with his trumpet, plays his legendary guitar, Lucille, sparingly at first, looking surprised as light, jazzy notes ripple from it, then a high, sudden flash.
U2's old duet with him, "When Love Comes To Town", is given over to a "talking" solo, his capacity for the thuggish power with which his rock pals mimic the blues always held in check by innate delicacy.
Only in a late burst of the comically indignant "How Blue Can You Get" ("Nobody loves me but my mother - and she could be jiving too"), then his signature tune "The Thrill Is Gone", does he essay something raw and roadhouse, his voice still tough and tender. By the end, he's pondering coming back again.
Tonight, Manchester MEN Arena; Saturday, Birmingham NEC; Sunday, Bournemouth BIC; Tuesday, Wembley ArenaReuse content