MONTREUX (Reuters Life!) - BB King showed why he is still “King of the Blues” at 83 in a welcome return to the Montreux Festival after newcomer Sweet Georgia Brown tried to valiantly upstage the legend at his own gig.
“I decided to give up playing the guitar,” teased King, back on the road after a farewell European tour three years ago, to cries of “no!” from the crowd.
“I’m glad you said that ‘cos I didn’t mean it,” said King, charming the Stravinski Auditorium by Switzerland’s Lake Geneva with his old-style showmanship and gentlemanly wit.
Sweet Georgia Brown, a relative unknown described by the Jazz Foundation of America’s Wendy Oxenhorn as “the last of the red-hot blues mamas,” started the evening with a primordial holler from offstage that left the crowd, impatiently awaiting the arrival of King, wondering if a hurricane was about to blow.
Brown finally showed the stunned audience her considerable physical presence at the end of her opening “Let The Good Times Roll” before blasting them away for an hour with electric blues vocals delivered with the raw power of an Etta James and Janis Joplin in their prime.
The set culminated in a standing ovation for Brown — rare for an opening act playing her first major European date.
The singer was plucked from relative obscurity after the Jazz Foundation invited festival organizer Claude Nobs and legendary bandleader Quincy Jones, who produced Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album, to hear Brown in one of the New York clubs she has been playing in a career spanning 59 years.
“It’s like a dream come true for me,” Brown told Reuters before she joined King and guitar legend George Benson, due to headline the festival on Monday, for an impromptu late-night jam session.
But King, returning for his 19th appearance at the jazz festival, showed he was not going to be outdone on his own stage and that he remains the greatest living bluesman.
“This is a very special night because the music I love the most is the blues,” Nobs told the eager crowd. “I think we should be finished in time for breakfast.”
King’s appearance alone gave him his first standing ovation of the night before he entertained the crowd with a vintage set of rock ‘n’ blues featuring favorites like “Every Day I Have The Blues,” “When Love Comes To Town” and “Thrill Is Gone.”
“Why just look at me, the Mississippi Kid,” said King, who rose from driving a tractor in the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta to become a world star.
“I feel like a kid in a candy store,” he said, surveying the dream team of musicians including guitar heroes Benson and Lee Ritenour, and keyboardist George Duke, who crowned King’s set with an impromptu jam session.
Blues singer and guitarist Susan Tedeschi also showcased her impressive range of improvisation skills under the appreciative gaze of old hands King and Benson before King made his guitar Lucille sing out one last time.
Editing by Paul Casciato