“If you don’t think you have the blues, just keep living.” – Buddy Guy at
his recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction
On Wednesday, my grandmother and I had the distinct pleasure of seeing
Buddy Guy, the best live performer I’ve ever experienced. It was my third Buddy Guy show, if you count his sideman gig with John Mayer, and it managed to live up to my sky high expectations.
Bucking my normal tardiness, I met my grandmother at the 33rd street station at 5 on the dot. Doors for the show were at six, and we hoped to get there early enough to secure a decent seat. We arrived at the BB King Blues Club right around six, and were surprised to find an already lengthy queue stretching (ok, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration) down 42nd street. By the time we were let into the club, I had spent 15 minutes shivering in the snow/rain trying desperately to read a battered copy of ESPN the magazine. Then we got to wait. And wait. And wait.
The opening band was talented but unimpressive, mainly because the singer/songwriter/frontman seemed to be going through the motions to some extent. Both guitarists threw out some tasty licks, but I was too cold and cranky to really get into them…or, er, even remember their name. Generic blues/rock, nothing that really stuck with me. Admittedly, the fact that I had to twist my neck nearly 180 degrees to see the stage may have affected my judgment. We were pretty close to the stage, but I was facing about 90 degrees away from the stage and was seated at with six other folks at a table suitable for only four adult sized humans.
By the time Buddy hit the stage I’d had some tasty (and expensive) mac and cheese, and was raring to go. Even my annoyance at the seating situation vanished. Buddy Guy is one of the musicians who brings to light the shortcomings of recorded music. You have to see him live to really understand the charisma, energy, and just plain domination that he exudes from his every pore. The man is an incredibly gifted guitarist capable of making beautiful music come out of a guitar with his fingers, drumsticks, and even his shirt. At one point in the shot he turned the guitar so that the strings were facing his chest, and proceeded to slow grind little phrases. Throughout the show he mixed relatively normal single note runs with all legato lines played without his picking hand, and his patented behind the but pseudo-whammy bar effects. He’s also a great singer, able to pack his high register with electricity and subtle vulnerability both when shouting and when cooing at an almost inaudible level.
More than anything else, tho, Buddy is and was a showman. Rather than run through a bunch of hits that the crowd might have come to see, he rambled through a medley of Muddy Waters hits, and other Blues classics seemingly as his whim dictated. He got a huge laugh telling one loyal fan to shut up when the fan shouted that he should “play some Buddy Guy songs”. You see, the point is every song Buddy Guy plays becomes his song.
Buddy kept his capable backup band on it’s toes stopping songs mid-way, throwing a taste of hits by others (again, mainly Muddy Waters) in a sort of live Blues mash-up, and demonstrated that dynamics don’t have to be limited to the “soft-loud-soft” cliché the followers of Nirvana have flooded the music scene with of late. After extended stretches of playing so quietly that voices from the peanut gallery would overwhelm the guitar sound, he would rip off a sudden and unpredictable screaming lead, before dropping back to a fragile and gentle volume. Or sometimes he would stay loud, building and building to a crescendo of perfectly chosen notes and unexpectedly placed screeching bends until the crowd was howling and jumping around. After only a few minutes I was sweating and yelling and stomping my feet like a pre-pubescent girl at a Britney Spears concert. My usual cynical attitude vanished before what can only be described as a true artist in his element…the crowd was completely and utterly at his control.
As usual, the highlight of the show was Buddy’s walk through the crowd. Having previously experienced Buddy live, I was delighted to get to watch my grandmother’s and the crowd’s delight as he walked amongst us absolutely ripping on the Telecaster Deluxe he was using instead of his usual signature polka dotted strat. The first time I saw him, I touched his shoulder like a star struck celebrity stalker. This time I didn’t get quite as close, but he did personally deliver a chorus to the table where we sat. Just before reaching out table, he sat down at the table next to ours and enlisted a member of the crowd to strum for him. Even knowing what was coming, it was an amazing experience.
I can’t stress enough the incredible control Buddy exerted over everyone in attendance. At one point he did a one hand multi-step bend that seemed to sustain forever…the large contingent of guitarists in the crowd were visible…we were the ones with our mouths hanging open.
You know, Buddy also shows the limitations of the written word (or at least my written word )…you really have to see it live to appreciate it. That said, here are a few choice words I thought I’d share in closing:
“When you’re watching Guy play, it appears as if he’s playing to you – no one else.” – Wikipedia Buddy Guy Page
Video of Buddy Guy talking about Guitar Slim as the inspiration for his performance style.
“When I go out there I have stage fright, but in the back of my mind; Look, if you buy a car, the dealer is trying to fuck you. If you buy a house, the guy is trying to fuck you. If you buy shoes you’re capable of gettin’ screwed. But when I play music the first thing I think before I hit the stage is, “Buddy, give ‘em all you got, because people are not used to getting their money’s worth.” – Buddy Guy Interview with Guitar World magazine
“My dad’s last words to me: Son. Don’t be the best in town. Just be the best until the best come around.” – Buddy Guy Rolling Stone Magazine Interview