Some items are harder to review than others. The quality is borderline and you don’t really know what to say either good or negative. Other times there’s even a worse problem, the item is so good that you feel like you’re coming across like some hired Public Relations hack because you do nothing but rave about how great it is.
B.B. King Blues Session falls into the last category, if I tell you how really phenomenal it is you’re going to have a hard time believing me. Like when I say that watching Etta James and Dr. John singing a duet “I’d Rather Go Blind” is as close to a religious experience as I’ve had recently you’ll probably wonder whether I need my med’s adjusted.
Or when I talk about the feeling of awe that came over me when I saw Stevie Ray Vaughn, B.B. King, Albert King, and Eric Clapton line up together on stage playing blues guitar being akin to Moses and his burning bush you’ll think I’m wandering into heresy. But think for a moment where this music comes from and you may just get what I’m talking about.
I’ve heard about devout Christians who get up and “Testify” about the impact of having Christ in their lives, and how powerful and emotional that can be to witness. Now if you put that spirit too music you get gospel. When you make the theme of that music secular, you get the blues.
But I don’t think I’ve ever seen musicians so deeply involved in the blues before, so deep that it’s being drawn right out of their souls, that they can be said to be testifying for the blues, until I’d seen the DVD of this concert done back in 1987. Sure the technical quality of the analog digital transfer is poor, with the picture jumpy in places, but that just makes it all the more real in some ways.
The blues is all about our imperfections and our flaws, those things that make us human, so to have an imperfect copy of this concert almost seems appropriate. At any rate it didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the music.
Looking at the line up you may wonder about the inclusion of a couple of the people; Billy Ocean is known more for his sappy soul on middle of the road adult stations, and Gladys Knight for the pabulum she did with Elton John and some others. But given the chance these two folk show that they can find the heart of a song with the best of them.
With the blues there’s always a touch of sadness that you’re trying to dispel when you’re singing and playing. On this disc the poignancy is provided by the knowledge that Stevie Ray Vaughn and Paul Butterfield are both now dead. So when Stevie and Paul joined Albert King on stage you felt your heart skip a beat knowing that moment would never happen again. (The movie is actually dedicated to Paul Butterfield as he died shortly after it was released on video)
There’s something about the blues that creates little moments of bonding between the performers, where they pull each other along and help out their friends in need. Gladys Knight, Etta James and Chaka Khan got up to sing “Ain’t Nobody’s Business But My Own” and whether Chaka was spaced or scared or a little bit of both I don’t know, but she was slow picking up her cue in the song, and had a little bit of the deer in the headlight look about her.
Etta James, standing right next to her, put her arm around the smaller woman and gave her a squeeze and you could see her willing Chaka the energy to get through the song. As the song progressed you could see Chaka get visibly more comfortable on stage. At the end she leaned into Etta James’ shoulder as if in thanks.
If anyone was a revelation on this disc for me it was Etta James. Either I’d forgotten what this woman was capable of or I never quite knew but she gives new meaning to the words heart and soul. From the opening ensemble when the whole group was introduced for “Why I Sing The Blues” and she came storming on stage you know this is a woman to be reckoned with.
In a line up of some of the biggest names in blues this woman easily moped the floor with her better-known male counterparts in terms of passion. She gave an absolute clinic on what it means to leave every bit of yourself on stage. None of the little sex pot teenagers who pass themselves off as singers these days could hold a candle to this woman when it comes to sensuality of spirit and pure energy.
As host B. B. King was pretty content to stay on the sidelines and more than willing to cede the spotlight to his guests. The one time he let loose with any extended pyrotechnics on the guitar was when Eric Clapton joined him for “The Thrill Is Gone” I haven’t seen Clatpton play all that often, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen him grinning while he’s played. I don’t think you could share the stage with King and the others and not have fun.
B.B. King, Albert King, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eric Clapton, Dr, John, Billy Ocean, Gladys Knight, Etta James, Chaka Khan, and Paul Butterfield together on one stage singing, playing and celebrating the blues makes B.B. King Blues Session one of the best usages of ninety minutes you’ll ever get out of your DVD player.