071413 BB King/Monkeyjunk/Los Lobos, Ottawa, ON

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Sunday, July 14th was the final night of the 2013 Ottawa Bluesfest so of course I was onsite early.  My professional milieu at the time required that I would be at the venue on LeBreton Flats before the gates opened in order to corral the young musicians under my charge as they prepared to perform on the big stage.

(Okay, that sentence is jammed full of inaccuracies and misleading suggestions.  To wit: The kids would not be performing on the “big stage” as it were; the Ottawa Bluesfest had five stages onsite that year and the young bands would be strutting their stuff on the secondary Black Sheep Stage, though for a bunch of ten and twelve year-olds it would certainly qualify as a big stage if not the big stage.  Also, they were hardly “preparing” for their mini-gigs on this fine Sunday morn.  In fact the groups would have been preparing for their set for the previous several months through the Bluesfest’s Be In The Band program, which is what I was referring to when I typed “my professional milieu”, a description that could also be considered suspect as I had mostly retired from teaching music not long before this.  Not completely, but mostly.)

After I got my Be In The Band bands settled, organized, and rudimentarily rehearsed I parked them somewhere safe and booked it over to the River Stage for the first half of Monkeyjunk’s set.  Great band, that Monkeyjunk, and I don’t just say that because I know the guys.  As a matter of fact I tend to be a little on the critical side when it comes to my friends that play professionally (just ask them).  Once a teacher always a teacher I guess.  Anyway, Monkeyjunk were (and remain) fantastic, a swampy trio of great players spewing forth upbeat dancing blues that keeps your butt shaking and your jaw dropping.  

After half of their set I went back to my young charges and watched with pride as they tore through their two-song setlists with youthful verve and aplomb.  My gosh, it’s always so fun to watch them do their thing on the big(-sh) stage.

After an extended afternoon watching band after band play their song pairs I found a bite to eat and headed over to the actual Big Stage to see one of the major heavyweights of the three-chord genre and master of the single-note solo, the great BB King* (1925-2015).  This was my only time seeing the grand Poobah of the blues (which was my own fault.  BB literally lived on the road playing hundreds of concerts per year and he came through Ottawa quite regularly, but fan as I am of old original blues BB King was never amongst my favourites.  I think he was too good and too clean of a musician for my tastes; I like my old blues to be rough and kinda dirty) and really, I should have gone to see him earlier.  

By this date the old Blues Boy had less than two years left in him and though he spent fourteen months of that precious time playing at least 126 more concerts (according to my online resources), I suspect that was more by habit than anything else.  For while I’m happy to have seen such a legend I think everyone in attendance would agree that Mr. King was playing well past his best-before date.  In fact, the most salient memory I have from his set was him sitting down on the drum riser looking every bit like a big old man sitting on a park bench to feed the pigeons.  I honest-and-truly don’t mean to sound unkind to the great man and I hope I don’t, but while his legend loomed large and projected to the back of the concert pitch his musicianship had dwindled significantly, forcing him to lean on his band like a cane.

Please, please don’t get me wrong.  As the years go by my already-high respect for BB King** has only grown and I am giddy to the gills to have the memory of seeing him and one of his famous Lucille’s*** with mine own eyes.  As a matter of fact, for my annual buy-one-of-the-signed-Bluesfest-posters-for-charity purchase the following year I picked up one signed by the King.  It is framed and proudly hangs in my dining room this very moment.  (I also have Bluesfest posters signed by John Prine, JJ Cale, Bob Weir and Phil Lesh, and Cheap Trick, which the band signed about an hour before the stage they were playing on collapsed in the wake of a freak gust of hurricane-force wind.)

After BB King finished I closed out the festival watching the last chunk of Los Lobos performing on the River Stage.  They were great but my digital pencil has just about run out of ink for the day so you’ll have to fill in the details of their set from your own imagination.

*In the summer of 2001 I went on an epic solo journey through the United States of America and found myself inside a little music store halfway between Memphis and Nashville called Players Guitars.  I spent at least an hour in there playing a string of beautiful vintage instruments and chatting with the owner; the entire time I was there not another soul walked into the place.  At one point I was plucking away on an ancient, very beat up acoustic guitar and I asked him why it was priced so high (I think it was around $5,000 or so) when an almost identical model in much, much better shape was hanging on the wall for a fraction of the price.  “Well, the one you’re playing was Blues Boy’s second-ever guitar,” he said casually.

“You mean…” I stammered, holding the instrument away from my body and examining it in an entirely different light.

“Mmm-hmmm,” he replied.  “BB King owned that guitar when he was just a little kid.”  I kept playing the guitar, but much more gingerly.

The shop also had a Fender 4×10 amp in the corner that had belonged to Chet Atkins.

**I can certainly respect a musician without being a fan of their music.

***BB King owned more than forty guitars named Lucille**** over the course of his career, all of them black hollow-body Gibson ES guitars that were modified to add a five-way bass roll-off knob.  

****As a young musician BB King was playing a bar one time when two men got in a fight that somehow led to the place catching fire.  BB got out but ran back into the burning building to retrieve his guitar, something that he considered in retrospect to have been a very bad idea*****.  He learned that the two men had been fighting over a woman named Lucille so he gave that name to every subsequent guitar he owned to remind himself never to do something so foolish again.

*****As a guy who once ran back into a burning building to rescue his cat I can concur.  Though I (and the cat) emerged unscathed I would never, ever do something like that again (with apologies to cats everywhere).

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