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B.B. King at Frankfurt's Alte Oper in November, 1992.

B.B. King at Frankfurt's Alte Oper in November, 1992. (Jim Derheim/Stars and Stripes)

B.B. King at Frankfurt's Alte Oper in November, 1992.

B.B. King at Frankfurt's Alte Oper in November, 1992. (Jim Derheim/Stars and Stripes)

B.B. King at Frankfurt's Alte Oper in November, 1992.

B.B. King at Frankfurt's Alte Oper in November, 1992. (Jim Derheim/Stars and Stripes)

B.B. King and Robert Cray at Frankfurt's Alte Oper in November, 1992.

B.B. King and Robert Cray at Frankfurt's Alte Oper in November, 1992. (Jim Derheim/Stars and Stripes)

Robert Cray at Frankfurt's Alte Oper in November, 1992.

Robert Cray at Frankfurt's Alte Oper in November, 1992. (Jim Derheim/Stars and Stripes)

B.B. King at Frankfurt's Alte Oper in November, 1992.

B.B. King at Frankfurt's Alte Oper in November, 1992. (Jim Derheim/Stars and Stripes)

Errol Vega and Paul Tanguay made the long trek from Spangdahlem AB to Frankfurt through Thursday afternoon rush-hour traffic jams to hear a bit of the blues at the Alte Oper last week. Arriving without tickets, they were rewarded with two seats in the middle of the fourth row, bought for the face value of about $39 — seats the scalpers in front of the theater were hawking for $98.

"B.B. King is a bonus," Vega said. "I'm here for Robert Cray, and I was prepared to pay twice what I did." Vega's opinion on which of the two star acts was more worthwhile was in the minority. From most of the 2,000 others in the hall, the young progressive challenger to the blues throne drew muffled applause. The audience saved its enthusiasm for the king.

It's not often that two powerhouse names in the world of R&B come to Frankfurt, and at a nice price, considering the nearly three hours of entertainment in a classy venue that has been hailed as acoustically perfect.

The thirtysomething Cray started the evening with a tight hour of coaxing his guitar to walk and talk. Taking center stage for a scathing I Guess I Showed Her from his Grammy Award-winning album Strong Persuader, he and his group were in perfect sync throughout the session. Cray drew heavily on his new album I Was Warned, which may have been his undoing, since repeated shouts of Smoking Gun, his first international hit, interrupted his chitchat between numbers.

At one point, a fan in the first row yelled up to Cray, "What's the forecast?" — a reference to his radio hit, Forecast Calls for Pain. Cray ignored the hint, replying "Cold, man, cold."

He probably could have waked up the snoozing crowd with more familiar numbers. Instead, he chose to blaze his own trail with superb renditions of Bouncin' Back from his 1991 Midnight Stroll album and a revisit to his earlier work in Because of Me from the Strong Persuader disc. Cray's passion was evident in his 60 minutes of flawless playing, making it tough for a listener to decide whether he is a better guitar player or singer.

That call is equally hard to make when it comes to sixtysomething B.B. King. His nephew William led the tuxedoed, eight-piece band through a two-number instrumental intro to the legendary wielder of Lucille — King's Gibson guitar, which he made talk, sigh, whisper and howl during nearly 90 minutes on stage. Rousing the crowd out of its slumber with a fiery Let the Good Times Roll, King and his band approached the midnight hour without letting up, on numbers like The Thrill Is Gone, Rock Me Baby and two numbers from his latest album, an instrumental version of the title song There Is Always One More Time and a run-through of Back in L.A. from the same album, his best in years.

King is a jolly joker on stage, a teaser who tortured his nephew when the amplifier jack fell out of Lucille. While William struggled to reinsert the jack, B.B. playfully jerked his gold-plated Gibson up and down, all the while rolling those big eyes at the crowd, who guffawed along with his band. He also caused his hapless nephew to struggle with the correct placement of his chair and mike stand prior to a bit of picking done sitting down. After five attempts to get the chair positioned just right, the undisputed heavyweight champion of the blues finally settled in for a trio of songs ending with The Thrill Is Gone.

King proudly proclaimed that he has been making music for 42 years before he surprised the crowd by introducing Cray once more, who took the stage and joined King for what he called a "history in the making" take of Early in the Morning.

Just when it seemed to be over, King offered a woman in the front his guitar pick. Hesitantly, she took it. Then out came a guitar pin, Lucille in miniature. A hand reached for it, again from the front. Suddenly, there was a wave of people at the stage, all clamoring for a pin, a necklace, a pick, all of which came from King's depthless tuxedo pockets.

It was Christmas come early to those lucky ones who got a tangible piece of the night's entertainment. For the rest, the memories will suffice: King playing Lucille into his golden years, and the young prince Robert Cray, here to sing and play to blues-blooded listeners into the 21st century.

For those who skipped this show, remember your missed chance the next time you lament the constant onslaught of rap and hip-hop on the radio. Let's all hope that these lesser forms of music don't succeed in spoiling the good taste of blues lovers.


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