Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center
Friday, July 11, 2014
Review and photography by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass.) – Buddy Guy is on everyone’s list of the greatest bluesmen of all time. Many in particular pay tribute to him as an essential and influential guitarist – Eric Clapton, no guitar slouch himself, said, “Buddy Guy is by far and without a doubt the best guitar player alive,” and the late, beloved Texas blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan said, “Without Buddy Guy, there would be no Stevie Ray Vaughan.”
But blues isn’t the half of it, as Guy has been demonstrating for most of his career and as he displayed in his near-perfect concert at the Mahaiwe on Friday night. Guy himself at one point disparaged attempts to pinpoint his music and that of others as Chicago blues, Memphis blues or Detroit blues aka Motown. He said it’s all just R&B (that’s rhythm and blues for the uninitiated), which in and of itself is simply a label given to blues-derived music that expanded beyond the 12-bar form and has evolved alongside rock ‘n’ roll since the mid-1950s, the main difference between them being that R&B is the name given to music performed by black musicians and rock ‘n’ roll by whites. It’s stupid, but it’s historical, and none of it really has anything to do with Buddy Guy, who is plain and simply a visionary music-maker and entertainer.
If anything, what Buddy Guy has been playing for years, and what his concerts explore, is a kind of meta-blues – a music that while being historically rooted in, yes, the Chicago blues of Muddy Waters, the sound of Chess Records (for which he recorded throughout the 1960s, backing Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Koko Taylor and others), as well as other styles, as he demonstrated, including that of Ray Charles (who himself was a model of meta- music), also comments upon that music, plays with it, makes fun of it or even mocks it, but does so with the most amazing love and virtuosity – really, it’s even better than what it’s mocking – that it becomes utterly transcendent and renders any notion or meaning of “the blues” almost irrelevant. It’s just fucking entertaining and knocks your socks off.
What Buddy Guy at his best is about – and what was best in his concert on Friday night at the Mahaiwe – is storytelling, using blues conventions as his tools. And he is a master storyteller, with a command of those tools and an ability to incorporate a host of styles, make them all of a piece, and make you laugh while he’s taking your breath away. In one song, he can play with the musical economy of an Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver, with simple musical statements, punctuated with precision (with both his playing and singing and his band arrangements), before exploding with floridity, with complicated, Faulknerian phrases or extended, gonzo passages like Kerouac or Thompson. He strings you along, you’re on the edge of your seat, he has you every step of the way, there’s not an extraneous note, he plays in a whisper, as if his electric guitar isn’t even plugged in, just one or two notes, a bent blues note here, and then kicks you in the gut with a rapid-fire detonation of heavy-metal thunder, a riot of angry feedback and distortion in answer to the cry of the whisper. But not for a moment too long – he’s never about long solos for their own sake. He’s always economical and dynamic, knowing that often and foremost, the less you say, the more powerful it is.
At 78 years old, Guy has lost none of his ability to entertain, to mug, to hold an audience’s attention through virtuosity or stagecraft. His voice is as malleable as his guitar – it can cry, weep, boast and holler, and he’s an amazing mimic, so he can do the gluey elastic of Muddy Waters, the threatening bark of John Lee Hooker, or the sweet purr of Marvin Gaye. If he doesn’t play guitar quite as much as he might have 20 or 40 years ago – relying a bit more on his band’s anonymous guitarist Ric Hall and on his protégé, the supposedly 15-year-old phenom, Quinn Sullivan, from whom we heard a bit more than we needed in a 45-minute opening set and then again for the last 20 minutes of Guy’s set – that’s totally understandable, and we got as much as we needed, anyway.
The conceit of his program, such as it was, was to take us on a trip through musical history, through songs identified strongly with other performers – Muddy Waters’s “Hoochie Coochie Man”; “Messin’ with the Kid” by his long-time duo partner, Junior Wells; a jazzy take on Little Willie John’s “Fever”; and Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar.” There were tributes to his acolytes, too – he had Sullivan assay Eric Clapton and Cream’s “Strange Brew” and some Jimi Hendrix (earlier on, Guy himself demonstrated how much Hendrix borrowed from Muddy Waters, although most say it was Buddy Guy himself who was the essential connection between electric blues and Hendrix’s rock-jazz-metal fusion).
It’s understandable, too, that at this point in his career (and life), Guy is excited to discover a young teenager with the technical prowess of Sullivan. Sullivan is indeed a phenomenal player. One just hopes that the time he spends with Guy will rub off more on him, and the lesson he will learn – the lesson Guy has to teach all bluesmen, really, and the one that has been seemingly lost on generations of players going back to the 1970s – is that it’s not about flash and speed, but about dynamics, storytelling, and, for god’s sake, entertainment and humor. And Buddy Guy is nothing if not a spellbounding entertainer with great comic timing – timing, of course, being an essential musical art. Without music, there can be no comedy. And Buddy Guy is not only a great guitarist and singer – he’s also a great comedian.