Review: B.B. King Lovefest Kicks Off

Buddy Guy smolders before the elder statesman's ambassadorial set during stop with Susan Tedeschi, Tommy Castro.

CHULA VISTA, Calif. — The B.B. King Blues Fest's ambitious, 41-date summer and fall tour is under way, but maybe the "B.B. King Love Fest" would be a more appropriate name for the outing.

The show, which features 74-year-old blues-guitar wizard Buddy Guy and younger disciples Susan Tedeschi and Tommy Castro, is long on mutual appreciation, among the performers themselves and between them — particularly King — and their audience.

At stop #2 of the tour Wednesday evening at the Coors Amphitheatre in Chula Vista, Calif., B.B. King walked onstage to a standing ovation from the 9,000 in attendance, sat down and proclaimed: "I'm 74 years old, and I think I've got the right to sit down."

A huge roar of approval from the audience told King all he needed to know: The crowd was on his side.

Like a proud papa, King praised his co-stars, acknowledging that their presence affords him the opportunity to play the nation's largest concert venues and broaden the blues audience.

He also sweet-talked the crowd. The demands of touring might have convinced King to bring a chair with him to the stage, but the strength of his voice and his immaculate guitar playing remain unchallenged by age.

The Thrill Isn't Gone

Although King broke little new ground in his song selection, trotting out such standards as "Let the Good Times Roll," "Caldonia," "Early in the Morning" and, from his Grammy-winning Blues on the Bayou album, "I'll Survive" (RealAudio excerpt).

Midway through "Just Like a Woman" he broke into a guitar quote from "You Are My Sunshine," eventually inviting the audience to sing along. "You got to sing it like you mean it," King implored. Then he invited the crowd to follow him like he was a Southern Baptist preacher, and the results were pleasing.

Of course, he had to do "The Thrill Is Gone" (RealAudio excerpt), the late-'60s hit that catapulted him into worldwide renown. An acoustic guitar that King said last month he had on hand to play some cuts from the hit album Riding With the King, his collaboration with Eric Clapton, sat untouched all evening. King, however, played a few bars of the title track at the 75-minute set's conclusion.

Whatever he plays, King knows how to win over a crowd. Rewarded with standing ovation after standing ovation, he thanked his audience as if it, not he, were the star of the night.

Playful Guy Brings A Mixed Bag

Guy, just a couple of days removed from his 64th birthday, nonetheless displayed a youthful exuberance as he toyed with the audience through his preceding hour-and-a-quarter-long set.

For all his blazing guitar talent, Guy's live shows have always featured him showing off a familiarity with the blues in all its many forms. On this night, he would offer samplings of Muddy Waters' "Hoochie Coochie Man," Cream's "Strange Brew," John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom," Elmore James' "Dust My Broom," Robert Johnson's "Sweet Home Chicago," Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man" and Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile."

Such reliance on others' material, especially given the wealth of his own originals, might be troubling if Guy wasn't such a scintillating guitar player. A golden Gibson Les Paul in his hands speaks as passionately as any guitar on Earth and his ability to be a musical chameleon is unparalleled.

In a tender moment, Guy gave his full attention to Junior Wells' "Little by Little." It was a highlight of the evening as Guy offered a genuinely touching tribute to his late musical partner.

An extended version of John Hiatt's "Feels Like Rain" was equally rewarding. Segueing into "Love Her With a Feeling" (RealAudio excerpt) and "The Sky Is Crying," Guy brought out upstart rocking blueswoman Tedeschi, serenading her sweetly. Tedeschi responded with a seductive enticement to Guy: "Show me some love right now." As the crowd howled with delight, Guy responded with some gentle, sultry licks that had Tedeschi blushing.

Tedeschi Struggles, Castro Shines

Tedeschi and San Francisco soul maven Castro made their first appearances with the tour, a night after King and Guy had kicked it off at the House of Blues in Las Vegas.

For the most part, though, Tedeschi struggled to keep up. Her guitar-playing skills don't measure up to those of King, Guy or even Castro, yet she commands an audience with a raspy blues voice. But her insistence on playing slower songs painfully pointed out her stiff and mechanical guitar playing.

She did much better on more upbeat songs, and her Earl King-styled "It Hurt So Bad" (RealAudio excerpt) was a genuine crowd-pleasing finale.

The jewel of this year's show may prove to be Castro, whose blend of Memphis soul and rock beats is invigorating and captivating.

Castro and his three band members, more accustomed to playing small blues clubs, ripped through a passionate set highlighted by Castro's sharp lead guitar and Keith Crossan's sax propulsion. By the time he ended his half-hour set with "Can't Keep a Good Man Down," Castro had heads nodding in approval.