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Mick Jagger and his fellow Rolling Stones were perhaps the first legendary musicians to keep touring long past the age when most of their ilk had retired — or worse. Proof the older set has taken a cue from those British whippersnappers came July 25 as 82-year-old B.B. King and 75-year-old Willie Nelson played for a large and adoring crowd at Riverfest Amphitheatre.
The Stones, in a way, were also the first band that cried wolf. When I saw them at Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis in 1978 (for $15, I might add), it seemed sure to be my last chance. Right. And clearly, many B.B. and Willie fans braved the smothering summer heat to get what they were betting was their final glimpse of these two Hall of Famers. (At least in B.B.'s case — Willie might be at it for another decade or so.)
That last-chance mindset fosters tolerance for the degradations that naturally accompany geezerdom. B.B.'s legs are no longer so hot, and he sits for his entire set. No big deal. Willie's voice ain't what it used to be. Even at 30 he wouldn't have been confused with Mel Torme, but his thin tenor was always right on tune, and he could hold a note. Not so much anymore. A little bit bigger deal.
Fact is, both legends performed almost all the songs their fans could have expected, and they gave an honest and sincere effort. B.B. can still pick with the best of them, though he prefers to show off his skill in short, periodic bursts, and that's fine. His voice is also still in fine form, although I wish he'd used it a bit more for singing and less for between-song talking. Particularly tedious and unbecoming was a long tale about Viagra, Cialis and Levitra and his loving relationship with each. TMI!
Willie's legs are still willing, and his set by comparison was “high energy.” The talk-singing aside, he led his band with a bit of gusto. As B.B. noted in one of his monologues, Willie is more than a songwriter and singer — he's a picker, too. Several well-constructed solos showed off that skill.
One of the most refreshing aspects of the concert was the mutual lovefest. The crowd absolutely adored B.B. and Willie. Otherwise why would they have paid good money to steam on a night made for air-conditioning — and a night made less comfortable by the sun-drenched 7 p.m. start time, perhaps set to accommodate the stars' bedtimes? And the aging stars clearly basked in the glow, voicing appreciation for the size and enthusiasm of the crowd.
B.B.'s and Willie's mutual respect was also clear in the way they interacted during the few songs they performed together, highlighted by Willie's acoustic picking on B.B.'s signature “The Thrill is Gone.”
For these geriatric legends — and their fans — the thrill might be waning, but it clearly isn't gone.