I remember seeing BB King live for the first time in Sacramento, California. Not only was I blown away by the music, I was, again, blown away by the showmanship, the emotion, the laughter, the gut-wrenching heartache that came with his lyrics and Lucille's matching notes, and the fact that no one else on Earth put on a show like BB King.
Not only did I see BB King many times, he also introduced me to several blues artists that I otherwise would have never seen nor heard of: Roy Rogers and the Delta Rhythm Kings, Koko Taylor, Susan Tedeschi, Dave Hole, Derek Trucks, Nathan Cavalieri (who wasn't even a teenager yet when BB King brought him on stage), Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Tommy Castro...
Then there were the superstars that came along with BB King and rode on his coattails at blues festivals all over the world: Buddy Guy, Etta James, Robert Cray, Al Green... heck, I even saw one of John Lee Hooker's last performances thanks to him being gracious (and respectful) enough to join BB King on stage on, last time.
The list goes on and on and on - I can't remember half of the bands I saw play with BB King, but I remember BB King and how he mastered his shows. I remember watching him play concerts standing up until, suddenly, one year, he was sitting down for the whole show. That was when I started to worry: "How much longer will he perform live?"
But BB King went on to perform for several more years after that, sitting down throughout his shows. Somehow, the king of the blues went on mastering his stage presence, even while never leaving his chair except to come on and off the stage, and to toss signature guitar picks into the crowd at the end of every show.
And, of course, I remember the last BB King concert I ever saw: it was on New Year's Eve in, of all places, Stockton, California, at the Bob Hope Theater downtown. It was the smallest venue I ever saw him play, and we had some kickass seats about 30 rows back from the stage. Even then, in his mid-80s, the show was spectacular. A bit slowed down from the early days of revving up the crowd at The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, but that was to be expected. In fact, it was nice to see him slow it down a bit. We knew Stockton probably wasn't his first choice for a New Year's Eve show, but he did it and you would have thought he was playing Madison Square Garden - the show was as good as anyone else would have put on in any huge arena in the biggest city on Earth.
If you have memories of seeing BB King, please feel free to share them with us. I'll carry my memories with me the rest of my life, and BB King is one of the reasons why I started playing guitar in the first place. Don't get me wrong: I'll never be as good as BB King ever was, and I'll never have the same, pure soul and emotion pouring out of me when I dare bend a note in a simple blues solo. But I'll always remember the times I saw BB King live because they were the best concerts you could ever see. There is no match for showmanship for BB King, forever the King of the Blues.
Zakk Wylde, Live in 1999
A friend of mine, Aaron, turned me on to Zakk Wylde in the mid 90s. I hadn't heard of him, but I knew exactly who he was talking about once he told me he was Ozzy's guitarist. That signature sound was unmistakeable.
Aaron told me about Zakk Wylde's new project outside of Ozzy's projects, called Pride and Glory. He explained to me that it was a Southern Rock feel with a few hints of heavy metal riffs thrown in here and there. Then he threw in, "The top of the CD is a picture of a giant, open beer can. It's f***ing awesome!"
I bought the CD the next day and listened to it non-stop for weeks. It got us through road trips from San Jose to LA and everywhere in between. From the opening banjo riff in "Losin' Your Mind" to the country/comedy song, "Hate Your Guts" I loved that album. My girlfriend, on the other hand...
In 1996, Zakk Wylde released a solo album called Book of Shadows that was more of an easy listening, marketable album. Don't get me wrong - it's a great album, but it;s not exactly what Zakk Wylde fans expected. Our girlfriends, on the other hand, LOVED the album... which made us love it, too.
Fast forward a few years and my girlfriend-turned-fiancee and I moved to Connecticut (that's another story). While there, we escaped Bristol, CT, for an evening in Waterbury (I think) to see none other than Zakk Wylde. My fiancee and I expected a few songs from Book of Shadows to be played, although I knew I was in for more of a Sonic Brew type of show. What we didn't know, however, was that we were on our way to a shitty, warehouse-turned-nightclub to see Zakk Wylde with no more than 100 people, max.
In a word: AWESOME!
My fiancee, to be honest, was kind of disappointed being that exactly ZERO songs from Book of Shadows were played at the show. I, however, LOVED the show. Having listened to Book of Shadows so many times, the final track, "I Thank You Child," was always a hint that, from then on out, Zakk Wylde was going to stick to metal. Sure enough, when we got to that shitty little club, that's what we heard.
At the time, I was working at ESPN as a Production Assistant. I knew there was a meet-and-greet autograph session after the show, so I decided to get Zakk an ESPN banner signed by all the ESPN SportsCenter anchors. I figured if he was cool enough to hang out in Connecticut after a show to sign autographs, I should be cool enough to get him something, too.
After the show at the meet-and-greet by his tour bus, there was a hoard of metalheads with stuff for Zakk to sign. When it finally got to our turn, I gave him the banner and said something lame, like, "Here, man. Awesome show!" He asked what it was, then he opened it up and truly looked stoked.
"Fuck yeah! I'll put this up in my workout room!" he said.
But the telling part of the story wasn't just that he's a cool, regular guy, it's what he signed for me that told me what he was all about.
First, I gave him Book of Shadows to sign. He did so with minimal reaction. But when I handed him Sonic Brew - his first return to metal after his plunge into the world of adult-contemporary, easy listening - his eyes lit up and got fired up. He signed the CD cover with a big, cursive, "Fuck Yeah!" alongside his name.
So, while he ventures back into his duldrum-sounding acoustic songs filled with depressing lyrics here and there, I think it's safe to say we have the Zakk Wylde everyone wants... no books, no shadows... the metal version.
One of the Greatest Guitarists You May Have Forgotten About
In the car the other day, I was tired of the CD I had playing. It was a mix of Fireball Ministry, Iron Maiden, Life of Agony (and, of course, Sound of War and Toy Called God - kind of a contractual obligation), but I had heard the mix CD so many times that I knew what song was coming on next. Even the guitar Gods on a CD need a rest once in a while. After I, of course, came to a safe stop on the side of the road to look through the console for a new CD... ahem... I found a CD that I hadn't listened to in a long time. So long, in fact, that I don't even remember putting it in the console in the first place.
The CD is Cover to Cover by The Jeff Healey Band. It's an album made entirely of cover songs by the Jeff Healey Band. A lot of great, classic blues songs, a Beatles song (dare I say that it's an improved Beatles song?), and some other really good stuff. But one track on Jeff Healey's Cover to Cover is, perhaps, the greatest version of a blues song I have ever heard.
The song is "As the Years go Passing By." It's a heart-wrenching song about lost love (so, yeah, a great blues song), but it's Jeff Healey's guitar work that makes it so incredibly emotional. To put this into context, I've seen BB King about a dozen times; I've seen Buddy Guy almost as much; I've seen Koko Taylor, Al Green, as well as countless other blues artists who are unknown and truthfully living the life of the blues, paying their dues at small clubs in nowhere towns. Out of all these artists, I have never heard anything like the guitar work by Jeff Healey in "As the Years Go Passing By."
The guitar work and fills throughout the song are all great, heartfelt and damn-near perfect, but it's the solo in the song that may - literally - bring you to tears.
I recommend you listen to the entire song for proper context and to really get into the emotion of the song before you get into the solo, but if you want to go straight to the solo, you can skip ahead to 2:25 in the song. The solo lasts until 4:51 in the song, and it's worth every nanosecond, every note, every pick, every strum, and all the bending notes that will make you well up with tears.
I saw The Jeff Healey Band in the summer of 1990 at The Warfield in San Francisco on the Hell to Pay tour. I stood about 10 feet from the stage, marveling at his playing - not just the way he played in his lap (which was no gimmick, let me tell you), but the emotion that came through in his solos. And watching in person what I have called his "unfair advantage" in being able to bend his notes further than anyone else was nothing less than awesome - literally filling bystanders with awe as he bent notes with soul and passion far beyond any other guitarist's ability.
The whole reason Jeff Healey played with that "unfair advantage" was because he was dealt the disadvantage at the age of 1 of going blind due to a rare form of eye cancer called retinoblastoma. He started playing guitar at the age of three and set it in his lap because, at that age, his arms were simply too short to play a guitar the conventional way. For the next 38 years, he played guitar for his fans - fans like myself - until he passed away from lung cancer on March 2, 2008.
Now that Jeff Healey is gone, maybe that's the reason I get a little more emotional when listening to his best work, knowing that nothing new will ever surface from him again. From the first time I was blown away when I heard the song "See the Light", to when I saw him live in concert not more than 10 feet in front of me, to when I saw him in Roadhouse. After all his years finally, prematurely, passed him by, I have always thought of Jeff Healey as one of the greatest guitarists almost no one ever knew.