He wears his trousers high, and plays his guitar down low – but at 85, the King of the Blues could be forgiven for putting his feet up for good. He's a monarch who takes his time, hitting the stage at this London BluesFest showcase after a lengthy band intro featuring all the right bumps in all the right places as supersized band leader James Bolden waves the charcoal-suited seven-piece into a brassy fanfare.
The crackling solos come and go, then after a couple of numbers he's trailed by a rousing carnie-style rap and the hall rises to its feet and here's BB in a silver jacket and gambler's waistcoat, tossing guitar picks into the crowd as if they were holy relics. He settles down with his guitar, Lucille, plays a little blues that's as arresting as any you'll ever hear, then pauses to speak – there's a lot of storytelling over the next two hours of stage time, the old-time rap of a true showman.
He does get around to the songs, but slowly, via the winding lanes of a senior's wandering mind – or at least, that's the way he plays it tonight. "Key to the Highway", "The Thrill Is Gone", "Rock Me Baby", "You Are My Sunshine" – they will come, but all in good time, along with a roster of stellar guests – Ronnie Wood, Slash and Mick Hucknall included, who sit either side of BB for the last 40 minutes or so. Wood delivers some great slide, Slash plays slow blues with feeling and and Hucknall radiates pride when King remarks, "I never heard a white man sing like he sang." The two trade verses, the players trade riffs, and the band ebbs and falls behind them. Age has taken some of the decoration from King's voice, but not its warmth or depth of expression, and, like fellow senior citizen Willie Nelson, he inhabits his own unique time zone as a player.
In a set that was langorous and casual if tightly bound, and feeling more like a spirited backstage guitar pull than front-of-house showcase scheduled (apparently) for DVD release, B B King came with the keys to the highway in his voluminous pocket, travelled a little, threw out his blessings as kings may do, a master of his art living with the luxury of not having to prove it, and he and his band, and his audience and guests lap up every golden minute.