ROCK / Got them tired old has-been blues

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The Independent Culture
THEY call him the King of the Blues, but Court Jester would be more appropriate. B B King is not a deadly serious artist. His rubber face, Baloo-the-Bear wigglings and sweet talk to his guitar, Lucille, are as familiar as his riffs. But there is a fine line between endearing tomfoolery and embarrassing self-

parody. King parades regally across it at the Royal Festival Hall.

His first problem is the Blues Boys, his tuxedoed eight-piece band (including, inexplicably, two drummers playing almost identical parts). Their poppy, cabaret brass threatens to bury him in cheese. After 44 years in the business B B should know that his gruff voice and impeccable, fluttering guitar work can do without this.

They can also do without some of the preening comedy, which, entertaining as it can be, detracts from the spirit of the songs. He get serious only once, when he dolefully says: 'Through the years it hasn't always been easy. Everyone wanted to put me down because I was a blues singer. It hurt.' Other people have the blues because their baby has left them, their best friend's dead, and they have, in all likelihood, a hellhound on their tail. King has the blues because of a few insensitive comments about his music. In short, he has the blues because he is a blues singer.

The flair is still there, but, as his final song says, 'The Thrill is Gone'. We end with five minutes of King handing out plectrums to the audience as if giving alms to the poor, while one of the band repeats: 'B B King] B B King] King of the Blues] Worldwide] King of the Blues]' On this showing, he is as much King of the Blues as the Las Vegas Elvis was the King of Rock'n'Roll.

Dance music: it's music you dance to. Obvious when you think about it. But the definition confuses many of those at the London Astoria 2. After seeing The Grid mime to their Top Five hit 'Swamp Thing' on Top of the Pops, they have come along to watch a band give a concert on a stage. So instead of gyrating hysterically to The Grid's intricate and sometimes innovative techno, they are peering through the smoky darkness at four men playing keyboards and percussion, two of whom are presumably Richard Norris and David Ball, best known as Marc Almond's other half in Soft Cell. Behind them a wall of TV screens, like a Radio Rentals window, flashes some low-budget computer graphics. Now and then there is some sax, and for 'Swamp Thing', probably the world's first electronic hoe-down, the banjo comes out. All in all, not much more of a spectacle than the average club DJ.

Then the 'band' retire, to be replaced by a tape which sounds not unlike what we have just heard. No longer obliged to face the stage, the crowd can relax and get on with dancing.

A typical exchange at the Southern Songwriters Circle at the Queen Elizabeth Hall:

Charlie Gillett: Dan, you wrote 'Dark End of the Street'. Is there a story you could tell about that one?'

Dan Penn: 'Hmmm. . . nope. Kinda no story, really.' (silence)

Audience member: 'Sing the song]'

DP: 'I'll sing the song.'

It seemed a nice idea at the time. Get four American songwriters whose names are usually preceded by 'legendary': Guy Clark, Dan Penn, Joe South and Allen Toussaint. Give each an acoustic guitar, or in Toussaint's case a grand piano. Add the not-yet-legendary songwriter Vic Chesnutt, plus an MC (Gillett) and a bass player. Then have a campfire-style story-and-song session. Unfortunately, Gillett's questions ('Do you have a name for your style of music?') receive the answers they deserve ('Nope.').

But if they are not talkers, the songwriters are, without exception, mature, emotive singers. Toussaint's 'Freedom for the Stallion', Clark's 'Desperadoes Waiting for a Train', South's 'I Never Promised You a Rose Garden' and Penn's 'Do Right Woman - Do Right Man' prove that great songs are as great pared down as they are with lavish studio productions. Gillett gives up asking questions halfway through.

(Photograph omitted)

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