LIVE: Buddy Guy Makes Love to His Guitar at the Palace, 11/19/2019
Eric Clapton looked behind him on stage. He could hear Buddy Guy playing, but where was he? He turned toward the audience, and there was Buddy walking down the center of London’s Royal Albert Hall blazing away on electric guitar. The year was 1990. It was Clapton’s annual run of six blues shows, and Buddy was one of many guest artists including Albert Collins, and Jimmie Vaughan. No matter! Buddy Guy took control of that concert, and everyone in that vaunted theater was in his hands. What would he do next?
Twenty-nine years later at age 83, Buddy Guy at the Palace in Albany on Tuesday, November 19, showed that he still controls his audience, playing with their emotions and reactions like a puppeteer pulling their strings. Call and response is a tradition in blues. Listen to B.B. King’s Live at The Regal recorded at Chicago’s Regal Theatre in 1964 for THE classic example of an African American audience egging B. B. on in a see saw of ratcheted emotion. The crowd and B.B. virtually poke each other into fevered bliss. Buddy turns that process into a game he plays with his mostly white audiences who have no background in this black experience.
In a show that sold about two-thirds of the Palace, Buddy took total control. Billed as co-headliner with Kenny Wayne Shepherd, he set the dynamic of the evening before he even entered the building. Photographers were told that Buddy would go on first, but he wasn’t even there at 7:30 show time. So, Kenny went on first.
Buddy and Kenny are yin and yang. While both engage in musical hyperbole – over the top blues geared toward whipping the crowds into a frenzy – they do it with very different approaches. Kenny brought out a crack seven-piece band highlighted for the first time this tour by a sax and trumpet player who all but stole the show. He opened with “A Woman Like You,” one of three songs in a row from his latest album, The Traveler. The second song from that CD lifted the opening riff from The Stones’ “Satisfaction.” Songs like “Diamond and Gold” and “Heat of the Sun” are vehicles created to showcase his guitar runs, but like so many others, his version of “Voodoo Chile” captures Jim’ riffs but not his deep emotion.
It works, though. The audience gave him several standing ovations and demanded an encore.
If blues is like an African American version of a Norman Rockwell painting, dripping with emotion, Buddy is the Andy Warhol answer to the classic blues styles. He reduces whole songs and choruses to their fundamentals, splaying guitar riffs with seeming caustic abandon. Hardly abandon. This man who gave Hendrix much of his style, played the guitar with his sleeve, his tummy, a drum stick and a towel that seemed to know specific riffs as it slipped down the neck of the guitar. To say Buddy Guy is a master of the strings, is an understatement. He was born with strings attached to his umbilical chord and was playing a makeshift guitar from wires he stole from the screens on his family’s shotgun shack in Lettsworth, Louisiana and nailed to the wall while still a young child
His favorite guitarist he told the crowd was B.B. King as he played a few lines from “3 O’clock in the Morning.” He credited B. B.’s success with influencing the rise in price of a Sears Silvertone acoustic guitar from $1.98 to $58.98 because of his popularity.
Buddy played on Muddy Waters’ classic Real Folk Blues album on Chess, and he did snippets from several of Muddy’s best known songs including “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “Got My Mojo Working,” mistakenly telling the crowd that the Stones insisted on putting Muddy on the show if they wanted the Stones to perform on TV’s Shindig in 1965. Actually, it was Howlin’ Wolf, not Muddy.
“I didn’t know what running water was until I was 17,” he said simply, telling a story about being in Chicago for the first time in 1958 and singing like Marvin Gaye for a club owner so that he’d lend him a dime to call his mother on a pay phone. What he didn’t say was that he considered asking mom to let him come back home because he was starving on the streets of The Windy City.
He’s always credited Eric Clapton with giving him greater visibility and inevitably plays a few chords from Cream’s “Strange Brew.” Cream was Clapton’s first major success, and Eric wrote the forward to my authorized Buddy Guy biography Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues published in 1993. That forward comes from two interviews I did with Clapton, one in an Adirondack retreat and the other in the basement of the Royal Albert Hall which had four levels of backstage passes. As Buddy’s biographer, I rated three out of a possible four, with four meaning all access.
Buddy wore a polka dot shirt Tuesday night. He promised his mother that if he were successful in Chicago, he’d come home to her in a polka dot Cadillac. She never lived to see that happen.
His most grounded song of the night was “Skin Deep,” written by producer (and drummer in Buddy’s band) Tom Hambridge who has made Buddy’s last several records a virtual Buddy Guy autobiography. Buddy told the story of preening in front of a mirror as a teenager, telling his mother he was handsome. Her response was that beauty is only skin deep. The song is one of the few he sings that aren’t at least 50 years old. And it should become an anthem in these times of racial hatred.
“I came here tonight to f**k with you,” he told the crowd early on, but by the end of his hour and a half set, he was handing out guitar picks and telling the crowd he loved us.
We love you, too, Buddy! May you and your songs live forever.