The career of blues guitar legend B.B. King has spanned some six decades, and he has earned a reputation of one of the best of the blues through constant touring and dynamic live performances. One of the frequent stops along King's seemingly never-ending tour is the annual jazz festival in Montreux, Switzerland, where the guitarist has made better than 20 appearances through the years.
Recorded in 1971, but unreleased in the U.S. until 1999, B.B. King's Live in Japan deserves high marks for exuberance alone. Had Live in Cook County Jail not just jumped into the charts, this live album might have been released long ago. The recording opens with a swelling of enthusiastic cheers, as King launches into an uptempo "Every Day I Have the Blues." There are plenty of other classics here as well, including "How Blue Can You Get?", "Sweet Sixteen," and "The Thrill Is Gone" (which elicits another round of cheering from the opening notes). Live in Japan may not have the long-standing reputation of Cook County Jail or Live at the Regal, but it's an excellent album, with a decidedly different feel from these two classics. King's obvious enthusiasm for his music and for his audience is infectious, and you can hear the sheer joy of it in every note. And, for those who don't really feel that they need additional versions of well-known songs, let it be mentioned that Live in Japan contains King's only live rendition of "Hummingbird," not to mention a couple of unique jams ("Japanese Boogie," "Jamming at Sankei Hall," and "Hikari #88").
Although Live & Well wasn't a landmark album in the sense of Live at the Regal, it was a significant commercial breakthrough for King, as it was the first of his LPs to enter the Top 100. That may have been because recognition from rock stars such as Eric Clapton had finally boosted his exposure to the White pop audience, but it was a worthy recording on its own merits, divided evenly between live and studio material. King's always recorded well as a live act, and it's the concert tracks that shine brightest, although the studio ones (cut with assistance from studio musicians like Al Kooper and Hugh McCracken) aren't bad.
B.B. King is not only a timeless singer and guitarist, he's also a natural-born entertainer, and on Live at the Regal the listener is treated to an exhibition of all three of his talents. Over percolating horn hits and rolling shuffles, King treats an enthusiastic audience (at some points, they shriek after he delivers each line) to a collection of some of his greatest hits. The backing band is razor-sharp, picking up the leader's cues with almost telepathic accuracy. King's voice is rarely in this fine of form, shifting effortlessly between his falsetto and his regular range, hitting the microphone hard for gritty emphasis and backing off in moments of almost intimate tenderness. Nowhere is this more evident than at the climax of "How Blue Can You Get," where the Chicago venue threatens to explode at King's prompting. Of course, the master's guitar is all over this record, and his playing here is among the best in his long career. Displaying a jazz sensibility, King's lines are sophisticated without losing their grit. More than anything else, Live at the Regal is a textbook example of how to set up a live performance.
There are both good and bad points to this CD. Of the latter, the Phillip Morris "Super Band" is confined to background work with - other than a few spots for Plas Johnson's tenor - no soloists being heard from. As an ensemble, the all-star orchestra performs well, but is essentially anonymous. Also, despite the backing, B.B. King does not attempt to play jazz, a wasted opportunity. But, switching to the good points, Live at the Apollo is an excellent example of a strong B.B. King live performance. Somehow he always makes his combination of blues and familiar hits sound fresh. With a liberal amount of space set aside for his guitar solos, B.B. is in top form throughout the well-paced set, which is far superior to most of his overproduced studio sessions for MCA…
Live at the Apollo is a Blues album by B.B. King and the Phillip Morris "Super Band" recorded at the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York. It was awarded the 1992 Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album.