Ask anybody, anywhere in the country, to name one living blues musician. Chances are pretty good they'll say "B.B. King." Ask them to name another and watch them get flustered.
More than just a singer or a guitarist, B.B. King is a legend, a musical crossover sensation, a pop cultural icon worthy of serialization by Andy Warhol. He is, for the mass of Americans today, the very face of the blues. But why?
Is it that familiarly bluesy hard-luck bootstrap story? Born to a poor family in the heart of the Mississippi Delta in 1925, King worked as a sharecropper all week and then sang in church on Sunday. In the late 1940s, he moved to Memphis, where his cousin, Bukka White (himself a rising musical star), taught him to play country blues on the guitar.
Soon he was on the microphone at Radio WDIA in Memphis, helping the nation's first all-black station deliver the blues to the entire South. It was there that Riley B. King became "Blues Boy" King and later, simply, "B.B."
Maybe he didn't step into the crossroads and sell his soul to the devil, but he did make a contribution to the cache of blues folklore: "Lucille," his name for the guitar he rushed into a burning juke joint to save. Every one of the nearly identical Gibson electric guitars that have passed through his hands since then has been given the same name, as if it weren't the name of the guitar itself, but of his muse, his inner voice. Of his six-stringed Excalibur, he has said, "I've never learned to talk very well without Lucille."
Was it King's unflagging ambition that brought him such success? In the early years of his career, particularly in the mid-1950s, King and his band were known to play as many as 342 nights a year. Even this year, as he celebrates his 80th birthday, he's out on the road again, with a tour schedule that would test the youngest musician. And now, as then, he is known for his hospitality, inviting guests to chat freely in his dressing room after the show.
But maybe he just picked the right songs -- like 1951's plaintive "Three O'Clock Blues," or the near-anthemic "Payin' the Cost to Be the Boss." Or, of course, the tune that first won him national attention -- 1970's strange and beautiful "The Thrill is Gone."
And maybe he's just a savvy capitalist. Since his early days in radio, when he was nicknamed "The Peptikon Boy" for the boozy elixir he hawked on the air, King has had a knack for marketing. He's still a fixture in the ad world, popping up on TV to flog antacids and arthritis medicine. The overseer of a mini-empire of nightclubs in Memphis, L.A., New York and elsewhere, this year he'll celebrate Mississippi's first "B.B. King Day," help launch a museum in the Delta, record and release a new album of duets and revel in the release of a major biography.
It's all of this stuff -- his history, his personality, his business acumen, his 13 Grammys, his honorary degrees from Berklee College of Music and Yale University, his countless fawning musical worshippers -- that make him the unmistakable figure he is.
But then, of course, it's also that other thing. That thing that's so hard to describe on paper. The only way to really understand the genius of B.B. King and the pivotal role he's played in the history of American music is to go hear him play on Wednesday.
Listen to his guitar. Notice which notes he chooses to play -- and those he chooses not to play. Listen to the way he bends his notes, as if he were using a bottleneck, and then lets them warble in the air. And listen to that voice, dancing between a high falsetto keen and a mad, dirty grumble.
B.B. may not have too much cause for the blues these days, but 12 bars into the first number, you'll know you're in the presence of the king.
Party On, Rick -- As anyone who has owned a small business in downtown for any length of time can tell you, it's hell out there on the mean streets of Spokane. And considering that the average life expectancy of a downtown club featuring live music is something analogous to that of a fruit fly, it's wondrous indeed what Rick Turner and his trusty crew have done with Mootsy's. For 10 years and running, Mootsy's has been a welcoming home away from home for just about everyone in this town who roams the streets after dark. Barflies, poets, scenesters, rockers, hippies, punks, freaks and geeks all come here to drink, smoke and converse the nights away to the sounds of a righteous jukebox or better yet, the drone of a live band.
And this week, the Turners -- Rick and his daughter Sasha -- are calling the Mootsy's family home for a five-day anniversary party, Wednesday through Sunday, with music, poetry, food and big slooshy glasses filled to the rim with your favorite intoxicating beverage. It'll be like those family reunions with strange distant relations you had when you were a kid. Except here at Mootsy's, those big sloppy kisses won't be coming from your gross Aunt Susan, but from someone you might actually fancy.
Turner dove into the nightclub business on March 10, 1995, with the purchase of the current Mootsy's space, then known as the PM Tap and Gambling Bar. He then stripped it down and made it over into a comfortable and friendly beer joint.
"I had never been in the bar business and had no idea what I was doing," he admits. "So I just emphasized things that I enjoyed."
Within its very first year, Mootsy's -- with the help of local poets Tom Davis and Zan Agzigian -- instituted a Sunday poetry series, which continues to provide practitioners of the spoken word in this region with a forum, a voice and an audience.
"Poetry for us was seasonal in that it started with the end of the baseball season and ended when the show started again in April," says Turner. "The reason being that if you have baseball, you don't need poetry."
Then the bands came a-knocking. As Turner has repeatedly said, the idea of having live music at Mootsy's never occurred to him -- at least in the beginning. After all, there's no stage -- or even a spot to put one. Yet before long he was doing it -- as well as opening up the loft in the back so he could squeeze in a few more bodies on heavily attended nights.
"But the real kick in the pants," he says, "was when we added hard liquor in October of 2000. Our gross sales doubled the first year."
Since then, the bar has been on a successful -- if not always completely turbulent-free -- trajectory. And Spokane has taken notice. Mootsy's consistently scores high in The Inlander's "Best Of" nightlife categories, while the semi-connected Mootsy's North 9 Pizza (founded in 2003) has become a major force on the downtown restaurant scene.
"I continue to hear from bands that love playing here," says Turner. "And I never tire of hearing regulars and non-regulars alike telling me how much they enjoy Mootsy's. The support we've received all these years has been really amazing." -- Mike Corrigan
Standing Up Straight -- You could argue that there are two times in musicians' careers when they have to prove themselves. Getting signed: That's one. Keeping people interested: That's the other.
There are plenty of bands out there that get signed, sound great, but fail after producing and reproducing regurgitated copies of the same record. Listeners don't want to just hear the same songs, over and over. They want to grow with the band, expand with them, groove with the roads they pave and watch their tastes change.
That's when the "keeping it interesting" part comes in. It's the spark that separates the talent from the ones that got lucky; the musicians from the guys with a clever shtick -- if you will, the men from the boys. These are the bands that don't need hype, that frown at record label gimmicks and that sound better live than on vinyl.
That's how you might describe At the Spine, the Seattle-based rock 'em, sock 'em trio rolling through Spokane this week. At least that's how they, and most every media outlet that's written about their live shows, describe the rock fury of At the Spine. It was great before, sounds great on your headphones -- but just wait until you see them live. Really, you haven't lived until you have. At least that's the buzz.
They've been called it all: the next Pixies, just like early Fugazi, early Guided by Voices, early Neil Young. The comparisons are plentiful -- and all overboard, if you ask me. Because after checking out their sophomore album, First Day of Spring, I can say that these guys stand on their own feet. Comparisons aren't really necessary.
No matter how they sound, the members of At the Spine approach their entire career as a band differently than anyone else. First Day of Spring is a worldly album that touches on more than just rock 'n' roll -- songs explore the damage of the war in Iraq, anti-Bush sentiments and life in a Mexican jail. Songs become stories, not just obtuse, self-reflective ballads. At the Spine gives you a glimpse of real life, not just rock 'n' roll life. They speak from the cardboard hut of a homeless man, from the desk of an inner-city teacher and from the perspective of a broken-hearted, love-deprived rocker. (OK, so that last one isn't all that original.)
Music is a revolution for At the Spine, an upheaval against all the power and energy that goes into sadness, war, strife and struggle. Their latest album is "about resisting the senselessness of the military-industrial complex ... [without letting] them take away our laughter, dance, music and right to revolt."
For At the Spine, rock is hardly skin-deep. -- Leah Sottile