Last night the 76-year old son of a Lettsworth, Louisiana sharecropper leapfrogged into my list of Top Ten concerts ever.
Didn’t see that one coming. Still, I shouldn’t have been so astounded. I knew going in that there’s nothing ordinary about Buddy Guy.
Raised to his teen years in a shack that often wanted for electricity and indoor plumbing, Guy learned to pluck cheap guitars (including a homemade two-stringer) before receiving the Harmony acoustic on which he taught himself boogie tunes by the famous Delta bluesmen of old. Relocating to the windy city as an adult, the fleet-fingered Guy helped define the Chicago blues sound with a stint in Muddy Waters’ backup band at Chess Records. He also performed with Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Koko Taylor.
By the late sixties Guy was one of few old guard guitarists repeatedly name-checked by young guns like Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck, and it’s doubtful there would have been a Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, or Thin Lizzy without Buddy’s fusion of traditional blues with hard-charging rock and roll. Even those unfamiliar with Buddy’s songs recognize his trademark polka-dot guitars and accessories.
Guy enjoyed an uptick in popularity during the blues revival of the nineties and turned heads with his comeback album Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues. His follow-up, Slippin’ In, earned a Grammy. Now—even in his Centrum years—Buddy still records and tours, occasionally popping into his Chicago nightclub, Legends, for impromptu gigs.
Buddy’s Big Damn Blues Band scorched The Akron Civic Theatre on Wednesday, March 6, 2013 with ninety minutes of 100 proof blues rock that warmed hearts and dropped jaws. Clad comfortably in a black jacket, white slacks, and matching white Kangaroo cap, the transplanted Southern gent remains a formidable showman. When not cracking jokes like a mischievous, dirty-minded uncle, he wowed with his six string slight of hand.
Signature track “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues” melted into a searing cover of Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man.” Popularized by Muddy Waters, the song appeared on Guy’s early record, Buddy and The Juniors, in 1970. It sounded fresh as ever in Akron.
“Now hold on!” Guy commanded the crowd. “When the audience sang along last night, they didn’t f@ck it up like you just did!”
The scolding was in jest, of course, and the folks loved it. Still, they injected extra volume when they sang the chorus to cuckold classic “Someone Else is Slippin’ In.”
Guy updated “74 Years Young” from 2010’s Living Proof, stating he’s two years older now, and decorated the track with references to John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom Boom.” Then he swapped licks with co-guitarist Ric Hall on “Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out.”
Buddy’s band also featured Marty Sammon on keys, Tim Austin on drums, and Orlando Wright on bass guitar.
Guy paused now and then to sip tea—or something—from a red mug by Sammon’s keyboards, or to address the theatre from a carpet at center stage, smiling and jabbing a forefinger at spectators for emphasis.
“You don’t hear blues on the radio no more,” he observed. “But if I’m alive I’m still gonna play.”
And play Guy did, attacking his cream-colored Fender Stratocaster with not only a plectrum but a drum stick. Guy also played it with his teeth, over his head, and behind his back. He even flipped the instrument around and rubbed the strings on his chest to create a distorted, percussive sound.
“I broke a f@ckin’ string,” he bemoaned mid-set. “Don’t you worry—I’ll probably break a few more!”
Fortunately, Buddy’s between-song banter was perfectly time to allow an offstage technician to mend the instrument. The guitarist gave the broken string to a woman sitting up front and noodled a few moments on a duplicate Strat—but he made it clear he preferred the other guitar.
Buddy advised the audience to check out his latest protégé, 13-year old Quinn Sullivan, an upstart guitar hotshot from New Bedford, Massachussetts who’s toured with Guy and contributed a solo (“Who’s Gonna Fill Those Shoes”) to the Skin Deep album.
“Whatever we sing about is what happens in everyday life,” Guy said of himself and his blues-playing peers.
The show’s highlight was a twenty-minute game of “Where’s Buddy,” during which Guy left the stage and played extended guitar solos while wandering in the audience (the instrument was fitted with a wireless transmitter). The bluesman darted up one aisle and down another, then disappeared—leaving fans on the floor scratching their heads. Moments later, Guy reemerged in the balcony upstairs, where he took his time posing for disbelieving fans’ pictures. All without missing a note or skipping a beat.
A late-set acoustic segment found the Hall of Famer sitting on a stool (polka-dot, of course) alongside Ric Hall and tweaking notes on a beautiful Martin steel-string (with polka-dot fret inlays, naturally). The sequence was anchored by an anecdote Buddy told about busking for change as a youth; a stranger promised the aspiring guitarist a dime if he could “punch in” certain songs. Guy and Hall recreated the medley by drawing connections between blues, hip-hop, rock and Motown—and with teaser snippets of classics by Ray Charles. Their unplugged performance of Cream’s “Strange Brew” was a nice surprise.
Guy and company cooled down later with the lovely “Skin Deep,” from the similarly-titled 2008 album. The soulful tune—whose lyric is based on life lessons imparted by Guy’s mother—is a call for people to disregard color and treat others as you’d treat yourself.
“Things always been black and white,” reads the verse. “Just like you can’t judge a book by its cover, we got to be careful how we treat one another.”
This blues master treated everyone in the Akron Civic just splendidly, thank you very much, unifying the capacity crowd in the universal language of music. The praise lavished on Guy over the years by fellow pickers like Clapton and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan isn’t hyperbole. Buddy still brings it, and Wednesday’s show was a stellar, remarkably energetic performance from a septuagenarian six-string superman.
The paperback version of Buddy’s biography, When I Left Home, will be released in May 2013 by Da Capo.
Opening set by Jonny Lang is reviewed here: http://www.examiner.com/review/blues-guitar-whiz-jonny-lang-sizzles-at-a...