Blues guitar hero fizzes momentarily...
It's a measure of both the durability of the blues in general and popularity of BB King in particular that 35 years after this ground breaking gig, BB is even more popular now than at the point when he appeared in front of an estimated 80,000 Africans in Zaire. This DVD has in fact done the rounds a few times being previously released as 'Sweet 16'. And while much is made of BB King's presence in Zaire at the time of the Mohammed Ali/George Foreman fight, there is virtually no info about the actual context of the gig, save for the fact that history tells us the event was part of a celebration of black culture sponsored by the Zairian government of the time.
Back in '74 Blues was backwater with perhaps only the late Bill Graham showing any kind of vision by slipping blues artists on to his big Winterland Rock shows of the time. Worse still BB's own recording career was in a bit of a slump. So while on 1972's 'LA Midnight' he found an unlikely association with both Joe Walsh and more understandably Jesse Ed Davis, the following 1973 album 'Guess Who' pandered to the Las Vegas cabaret circuit which provided a good financial return at the expense of creativity.
It is worth mentioning the historic antecedents if only because though the DVD does have a very brief add-on interview with BB King - offering a few minutes of basic rehashed biographical detail - the DVD tells us nothing about how BB was able to bring the blues back to Africa. There is simply no context at all, no relevant interviews, and aside from the boxing, no context for what proves to be a wildly enthusiastic reception for the King of the Blues.
Although excellently filmed by the Academy Award winning Leon Gast, the material is adequate rather than inspired. The big band set does occasionally offer glimpses of BB's stellar playing, his beautifully honed vibrato, his masterful singing and in the case of 'When I Sing the Blues' his ability to establish a beautiful groove.
Curiously for a feted raconteur, it isn't until the half hour mark he addresses the crowd to introduces his core band and to thank the orchestra, many of whom he doesn't know. It's a tribute to everyone's sense of professionalism and music ability that the huge aggregation manages to triumph in the end.
Somewhere in this capsule of the blues there is a spark that fizzes momentarily, particularly when BB explores the core of the blues on 'Sweet 16', as he launches passionately into the lyrics. But for a man who years before was already the crowned King of the Blues and who several decades later was to enjoy a couple of major renaissances, this is a workaday outing in front of 80,000 plus African blues fans.
In sum, BB came, saw and just about conquered, though without anything more than the concert footage we are left in the dark as to the true significance of the event.
Review by Pete Feenstra