The Night I Saw B.B. King

May 15th, 2015 by Phil Leave a reply »

I can’t say anything more profound than what scores of better-equipped people have already said about the passing of B.B. King. Flags should be at half-staff and this should be the lead story everywhere. But the eulogizing is best left to others.

Instead, I will tell the story of the night I saw B.B. King. In retrospect, having seen hundreds of concerts over the course of my life, it might just be that seeing B.B. was the absolute weirdest one of them all.

It was a Friday night in Beloit, Wisconsin in June 1993.

I had spent the week at the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater, attending something called the World Affairs Seminar. It was nominally a bunch of people like me, high school students entering their senior year, gathering to learn about, you know, world affairs. Among other things the week consisted of:

  • A Mexican trade representative extolling the virtues of a then-current proposal called NAFTA.
  • A walk to the only known record store in the city – Wal-Mart – at which time I bought a copy of Dream Police. On cassette.
  • Hanging out in a laundry room with a cute girl who lived in Mount Morris!
  • Watching the Bulls-Suns NBA Finals in a large dorm lounge with many people but most prominently a self-identified Mavericks fan from New Hampshire who was the only person in the room rooting for the Suns.
  • The burning of a Canadian flag.

In other words, it was a completely normal week.

That Friday afternoon, my dad picked me up from the campus and we drove down to Beloit. We were going to Riverfest, or whatever exactly the fest on the river is/was called. We were going to see B.B. King. And also Blue Öyster Cult. Because that’s what would logically happen in Beloit in 1993.

And so okay, we got to Beloit, and I really don’t remember anything of what happened between Whitewater and when B.B. took the stage. I sort of doubt anything too notable happened. If I forgot any kind of highly important life message imparted to me during that drive, Dad, I apologize.

B.B. took the stage. We didn’t know going in, but it turned out that he was touring with his boogie band, not his strict blues band. There were a lot of Hawaiian shirts being worn on stage.

I specifically remember that the bassist was a very uncool looking white guy playing a square bass. And every time anybody else would do a little solo, B.B. would put his hand to his ear and peer over at the soloist. His hands were immense. When he would put his hands to his ears it looked unreal. In retrospect, the word that comes to mind is Ferengi.

Now, I was 16 at the time. I didn’t totally understand the distinction between him hauling out his boogie band as opposed to his blues band, even though I tended to listen to the blues show on WXRX (the X!) every weekend, and even though I’d seen other blues luminaries previously. I mean, I did understand the distinction. Just not totally. It was all kind of weird to me.

And then somewhere along the way it started raining. And then raining kind of heavily. It wasn’t cold out per se, but after a while, wow, it was cold. And it being a Friday in late June, nobody had any jackets.

Now at one point, B.B. went to take his pick and throw it out into the audience. Okay, fair enough. It landed somewhere in what was becoming a soft mud lawn and a couple of people lunged for it.

But then somebody on stage and went up to B.B. and handed him many picks. In my mind it was a total crapload of picks. He flung them all. And some people went crazy. In particular I remember a couple of women near me freaking out and diving for picks and bumping into people and since we were all wet and cold it made me even more cold and it was ridiculous.

I’ve been to other shows in the rain – though I don’t remember that much rain. I’ve stood in the mud – though I don’t remember anybody diving through the mud. I’ve seen other outright legends – though I don’t remember them wearing Hawaiian shirts.

Eventually the set ended. And, absurd as this seems in retrospect, we were like, well, is Blue Öyster Cult going to play now?

We walked to the other stage and nothing much was happening. Chants erupted:

“BEE OHH CEE! BEE OHH CEE!”

“Blue Öyster Cult! Blue Öyster Cult!”

And my favorite:

“Fuck the rain! Fuck the rain!”

It was all to no avail. The stage was too wet. Blue Öyster Cult would not appear.

It was okay, though. I managed to see them a few months later at the MetroCentre with Nazareth, Uriah Heep, and Wishbone Ash. Andrew and I went. We saw our Spanish teacher there. The next day, Señor commented about how odd it was that Nazareth tried to get the crowd to sing along with “My White Bicycle”. He was right.

Anyway, since Blue Öyster Cult did not come out on stage that night, my dad and I got in the car and went back home to Winnebago.

I think that I was intentionally in Beloit once since that night. I’ve had to drive around it and maybe stopped there for gas. But I do remember winding up at of all things a ska show in Beloit some time during my senior year. MU330! Buck-O-Nine! Gangster Fun! But I have not been back since. I mean… it’s Beloit.

And I never got a chance to see B.B. again in a less absurd setting. I can sort of make a throw-off comment that I regret that, but really, wasn’t it fabulous to see an icon in the rain in the armpit of Wisconsin? Why would I want an experience like that to be diluted in my memory?

As for other things, I talked on the phone a couple of times with the cute girl from Mount Morris, but for some reason we never actually hooked up, probably because I was 16 and had no idea what the hell I was doing. The Bulls beat the Suns in 6 games. I specifically remember listening to “Gonna Raise Hell” right before getting out of the bus in Oglesby before the regional math tournament. Also, NAFTA passed.

All of this is a long way of saying: Rest in peace, B.B. King. Thank you for the rain and the picks and the boogie. But mostly, thank you for the blues.

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