Buddy Guy: Alive and well and still got the blues
Buddy Guy’s latest album songs are introspective, reflecting on mortality as he perhaps realizes the inevitability of death
In the summer of 1970, roughly a year after the Woodstock Festival, someone had the brilliant idea of chartering a train, filling it up with some of America’s leading rock bands and touring multiple cities in Canada. That trip is documented in Festival Express, a film that was released in 2003. The bands and musicians on the train included The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, The Band, Buddy Guy, The Flying Burrito Brothers and a few more. The train stopped at three Canadian cities for gigs but it was a non-stop party aboard, with drugs and drinks fuelling jamming, and general horsing around, on the train. Except for one bunch, Buddy Guy and his band.
In 2015, when Guy was asked by an interviewer what he remembered about that experience, he said: “You know, if they was living, Janis and Jerry, they’d probably ask me do I remember, ’cos everybody was messed up back then but me.”
Those who have watched Festival Express will remember some of that drunken jamming, but they will also likely not forget how Guy sizzled on the guitar on two songs that are included on the film’s DVD—Money (That’s What I Want) and Hoochie Coochie Man. His characteristic manner of playing loud, raw and unpredictable guitar solos, with added feedback and distortion, is unmistakable on those early performances and it is easy to understand why and how he was such a huge influence on leading names in rock music such as Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jeff Beck, all of whom have effusively acknowledged his greatness and pioneering style.
During Festival Express, Guy was only in his early 30s, but still older than most of the other musicians on that train. Decades later, in 2007, I got to attend his first gig in India at the Siri Fort Auditorium in Delhi. He was 71 then but appeared remarkably sprightly, his adrenalin-charged guitar solos and top-notch showmanship on display for us swooning fans. I remember that as he strode off the stage and walked down the aisles of the auditorium while continuing to play his guitar, the audience was rapturous, some even running up to him to touch his feet. In later years, he played at least a couple of times at the Mahindra Blues Festival in Mumbai. He was even older, but as good as ever on stage.
Guy, who will turn 82 in July, has just released a new album; it’s titled The Blues Is Alive And Well. Many would expect a musician with a career as long as his to lose some of his sheen at such an advanced age. That certainly hasn’t happened. He still makes his guitar scream and shriek in his trademark way, yet he also makes it quietly sing. His voice too sounds as exceptional as it always has in the Chicago blues style he has come to exemplify. But the songs on his latest album are introspective, reflecting on mortality as he perhaps realizes the inevitability of death. On the album opener A Few Good Years, he sings: “I had my share of women/ They had their share of me/ They told me I was trouble. And I don’t disagree/ Just a few good years/ Is all I need right now/ Please, please lord/ Send a few good years on down.”
That sentiment is echoed in When My Day Comes and on the title track, a song about an unfaithful partner but also about keeping the blues alive: “As long as I am breathing/ And my heart’s still beating/ I got my story to tell/ As long as I’m around/ The blues is alive and well, yes it is.” But The Blues Is Alive And Well is no whiny lament. It’s blues-rock at its finest. On Cognac, an ode to the drink (it happens to be a favourite pre-gig tipple for Guy), he enlists two guitarists, Keth Richards and Jeff Beck, and the three play solos in contrasting styles that are a treat for the ears. There are references to late bluesman Muddy Waters, who, along with B.B. King, once mentored Guy when he was starting out. On You Did The Crime, a song about losing a cheating partner, another guest and big Guy fan plays the harmonica: Mick Jagger. On another track, Blue No More, British singer and guitarist James Bay is a guest.
Buddy Guy’s storied career began in Louisiana in the 1950s, when he played with local bands. He would go on to record albums with the legendary blues harmonica player and singer Junior Wells before becoming a bandleader himself. His discography is vast but nearly all of it is fantastic. His first as a bandleader, I Left My Blues In San Francisco (1967), is a collectible, as is Buddy Guy & Junior Wells Play The Blues (1972), an album that Eric Clapton actively helped produce. Another, Southside Reunion (1971), a rare collaboration with the blues pianist Memphis Slim, is a must-have for blues lovers.
But dig anywhere you like in his career, which began in 1953, and you are likely to find an album that is amazing. Such as the one he has just released. Buddy Guy is certainly alive and well.
The Lounge List
Five tracks from ‘The Blues Is Alive And Well’
1. ‘Cognac’ by Buddy Guy (featuring Keith Richards and Jeff Beck)
2. ‘You Did The Crime’ by Buddy Guy (featuring Mick Jagger)
3. ‘A Few Good Years’ by Buddy Guy
4. ‘Guilty As Charged’ by Buddy Guy
5. ‘Nine Below Zero’ by Buddy Guy
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.
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