Riding With B.B. King #4: Spinning The Odometer

En route from Portland, Ore., to Denver, Atlanta and Chicago, even days off can be grueling.

[Editor's Note: Blues ambassador B.B. King is leading a package tour, the B.B. King Blues Festival 2000, on a string of 41 dates across the country. The shows also will feature sets by Buddy Guy, Susan Tedeschi, Tommy Castro and Corey Harris. Castro band drummer Billy Lee Lewis has agreed to provide sonicnet.com an inside view of the tour as it progresses.]

Portland, Ore.; Friday, Aug. 11: Last night was homework night on the bus; by that I mean we listened to and critiqued tapes of the last several nights' performances.

Typically, this is anticipated with all the enthusiasm of employee evaluations, or any exam which involves rubber gloves. But objective scrutiny of the songs and performances is extremely important, no matter how painful and ego-bruising it may be. Also, with a 12-hour bus ride ahead of us and Randy [McDonald, bassist] all out of rubber gloves, it was at least something to pass the time.

Much to everyone's relief, however, the tapes sounded quite good — not perfect, but encouragingly good. Each of us heard things we could improve upon, or as is often the case, leave out altogether. We all subscribe to the theory that states, "If you think you're overplaying, you probably are." Frequently what is called for is simply paring down some notes.

Occasionally, a song may feel a little "on top," or just slightly ahead of the beat, even though technically the song is being played in time and is not actually being rushed; we're talking about extremely fine points here, tiny fractions of a musical inch.

Problem areas of intonation, tempo, phrasing, overplaying and, occasionally, a spot in a song that feels too bare become apparent to us through these reviews. I gotta tell you though, sometimes we listen to these tapes and wonder if perhaps we should be considering career options. But I think last night everyone experienced one of those all-too-rare feelings of "All right!"

Most musicians are extremely self-critical, and rarely fully satisfied with almost any performance, so when last night's homework session turned out to be a fairly pleasant experience, well, I guess that's what keeps us going on — those infrequent moments of feeling like you really do have some idea what you're doing.

The show in Reno, Nev. (Aug. 10), seemed to go well for everyone, despite mountain winds so intense they necessitated sandbags on the drums to keep them from blowing over (cymbals turn into big round sails in a wind like that), windscreens on the mics and extra grease in Tommy [Castro's]'s hair.

Denver; Wednesday, Aug. 16: Things have momentarily settled into a somewhat predictable routine; tables in the catering area are less factious, as more players and crew members meet and discover mutual friends and interests. Predominantly, but by no means exclusively, these tables are shared by musicians with musicians, and crew members with crew members, each sharing the information, frustrations, joys and discoveries inherent to their particular contribution to the shows.

Some of these newly forged relationships will end with the tour, but some will likely become long-term, possibly even lifelong, friendships. These first meetings often come about under unexpected circumstances; for instance, last night in Denver I was having dinner with Brad [Hallen, bassist with Susan Tedeschi], when we were approached by B.B.'s bass player, Mike Doster.

It turns out he was requested to convey hellos to me from two mutual musician friends, Rod Bland [drummer for and son of Bobby "Blue" Bland], and "my other little brother," John Cowan, an enormously talented singer from Nashville.

A few minutes later Stanley Abernathy, one of B.B.'s trumpeters, came to our table after overhearing me mention my old homey Peter Walsh; it seems Stanley and Peter were both members of Pacific Gas & Electric, a very cool soul-rock band of the late '60s, early '70s. I think we could safely nickname this tour the "B.B. King's Small World Tour 2000."

In Denver (Aug. 15), Buddy [Guy] threw in his very cool rendition of John Hiatt's "Feels Like Rain" just as the clouds converged, and sure enough. ... Fortunately, it wasn't much more than a few healthy bursts and most people toughed it out and were rewarded with another great night of music.

I'll tell you something, nobody sucks on this tour. I have seen shows that didn't deliver what the audience deserved, but this tour is making everybody happy — the audience and the music and production folks alike.

Chicago; Monday, Aug. 21: After the show in Denver, we — you guessed it — manned the galley and pushed off for Atlanta. Oh, yeah, that was our next "day off." Again, after a 24-hour drive, we arrived, ate and went straight to bed because we had not one, but two early morning TV shows downtown before our show at Chastain Park at 6 p.m.

Atlanta was the only other two-night (Aug. 18–19) performance on the tour, and on the second night B.B. invited both Tommy and Susan to, in his words, "make a little musical history" and join him in what turned out to be a three-song jam; the king and two of his adoring heirs.

I believe that B.B. sincerely enjoyed it; believe me, if you don't dig what's going down on your stage, after one song you say " OK, that was --------, let's hear it for him/her," and get them the hell off the stage as quickly and gracefully as possible. But not so that night; once again B.B. shared the stage, trading off vocals and solos, checkin' out their sh-- and bobbing in approval.

The people who witnessed it felt fortunate, but I know that Susan and Tommy felt blessed. I mean, can you imagine playing and singing with B.B. King, then being invited to stay and play some more, and have him diggin' what you were doing? Get outta' here!

Detroit; Thursday, Aug. 24: OK, so who can guess what we did after our second show in Atlanta? All right, you there in the Blues Review T-shirt ... that's correct, we drove 400 miles to Evansville, Ind., made it in time for the free continental breakfast (you'd be amazed at the things that excite one after a few weeks at sea!), got a couple of hours of sleep, off to the venue, did our show, back to the hotel. ... Wait, let me simplify this tour for you: This is my life in seven words: coffee cup, steering wheel, drumsticks, pillow, repeat.

From Evansville to Chicago, where we arose at 4:15 a.m. to do the WGN morning news/whatever show, back to bed for a few, off to the Rosemont Theater (which went exceedingly well, all things considered), and, you guessed it, another all night forced march to Detroit, where Tommy (that poor suffering bastard) had to do a 7:30 a.m. TV interview, while the rest of us slept shamelessly — quite soundly and happily, too, I might add.

It's now the early morning following our Detroit appearances. Cleveland looms large, as does some sort of tour-related appearance on the ABC news station. Ahhhh ... I'm off to bed.