Meeting BB King in New York City

Apologies if this week has been heavy with memory posts from the early days of learning to play in a band, but it’s been triggered in me for various reasons. With BB King passing yesterday, I remembered a near encounter with him on the day of Rheostatics’ first show in New York City. We were about to leave our hotel for the club– Kenny’s Castaways– to play a set during CMJ, and as we gathered in the lobby like a bunch of lost woodland animals frozen from the enormous electricity and pulse of New York City (we were also nervous as fuck because we had to showcase that night), the revolving doors spun, three at once, producing a dozen large men in powderblue suits carrying guitar and horn cases: BB King’s band. They were radiant in their jackets, and had spectacular hair: some coiffed above their heads, others slicked back, others rising like a column, and others mushrooming in great oracular afros. The last person to come through the spindle of the doors was BB himself, smiling while entering the lobby as if preparing to relax a New York tourist crowd peaked to the sudden presence of the musicians. Being a young person at the beginning of my musical journey, the thing that impacted me most about them was how professional and steady and upright and well-put-together the players appeared to be and how freaking old they were (making their healthy, clean and good appearance all the more amazing considering that they probably played 200 gigs a year). It made me consider how, even though we hadn’t done a single show anywhere other than Canada and had released only one album, it was possible to be like this: men who did what I did for a living. The band mulled about in the lobby joking with each other, and a swarm followed BB as he lined up to check into his room. I went with the swarm, but, at the last second I turned away, feeling that taking him in at that moment– the sunshine of his eyes, great protruding chin, and quick handshake to anyone who offered theirs– was probably enough. I turned to where my band-mates were standing about to leave the hotel for a taxi, when I was caught in the path of one of BB’s musicians trying to get to the elevator. “Sorry,” I told him, as I moved aside. “Ok,” he said, and then: “You gigging tonight?” I told him that we were. “First time ever playing New York City,” I said. He swooped back as if struck by an arrow, threw a hand across his forehead and said, “Whoooo-eee!” then laughed a great laugh. I tried to laugh back, but nothing came out.

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