Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit were heading to Orlando when they heard about B.B. King’s death last Friday morning. “B.B. King wasn’t just a famous blues singer,” Isbell wrote in an early morning tweet. “He was a truly incredible guitar player. Didn’t give a damn about chords. You can’t sing a chord.”
That night, during a headlining show at the Plaza Theatre, Isbell and company paid tribute to the blues legend by kickstarting their encore with a cover of “The Thrill Is Gone.” King’s version of the song — released in late 1969, while he was wrapping up a month-long American tour opening for the Rolling Stones — had been a cover, too, with King modifying the Roy Hawkins original by adding strings, taking out the horns and dialing up the heartbreak. In that vein, Isbell put a personal spin on his band’s own performance, transforming “The Thrill Is Gone” from an ode to crumbled love into a tribute to a larger-than-life bluesman who dished out plenty of thrills himself.
There weren’t any Lucilles onstage. Instead, Isbell’s Duesenberg Fullerton Elite and Sadler Vaden’s American Strat shared the spotlight equally, both guitars letting out controlled bursts of bluesy firepower. It was an inspired, one-off performance — a chance, as Isbell explained during the introduction, “to play the kind of music we grew up on” — and the guys kept things at a low simmer, never once letting the song boil over into an indulgent solo-fest. The King would’ve been proud.