April 23, 2013

The Blues Will Never Die: Buddy Guy at State Theatre

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As I made my way to my seat, I scanned the crowd of Ithacans that had come to see Buddy Guy perform at Ithaca’s State Theatre on Sunday. As excited as I was to see a legend perform — for, as Jimi Hendrix once said, “Heaven is lying at Buddy Guy’s feet while he plays guitar” — I was also a bit discouraged. The audience was mostly elderly, and judging by the faint but omnipresent post-4/20 fragrance, it contained a sizable number of smoked-out townies. I sat down and my row-mate gave me some disconcerting advice: “Don’t even fart — the guy in front of you is a prick.” There seemed to be only one consolation: no cell phones would be waved in my face.

But when Guy strolled out, sporting a cream Stratocaster and shaking his face like a bulldog wiping spit, the crowd erupted. He was a ball of raw energy and untamed bad-assery. I had seen Warren Haynes and Government Mule at the State previously, but as wild and technically proficient as Mule’s band is, Buddy Guy seemed more even more unhinged and even more alive — an incredible feat for a man of 76 years.

The opening song, the slow burning, “Damn Right I Got the Blues,” is from Guy’s 2005 release of the same name, though it would have fit in perfectly in one of those booze filled blues clubs of the ’40s and ’50s — it was an almost stereotypically bluesy song. From Guy’s muttering repetition of the words, “I got the blues,” just about an infinite number of times to his gutsy, wah-wah pedal-infused solos, the song riled up the room and set the mood for the night.

As the opening jam died down, Guy looked out into the audience and, like a dirty-mouthed Pope, told us, “It took a long fuckin’ time to bring me back.” It amazed me that someone who has performed for over a half-century could even remember coming to a small town so far from his birthplace in Louisiana. Growing up as a cotton picker, Guy later told the crowd, he never could have imagined being where he is today. Watching him on stage, with a wry smile on his face and an adoring crowd at his feet, I couldn’t imagine him anywhere else. He looked down as the piano riff of Muddy Waters’ “Hootchie Cootchie Man” filled the room. “I wanna play something so funky you can smell it,” he growled. I wasn’t sure if it was the weed, but I was pretty sure I already did.

The riff continued as he tapped morse code tremolos on the high-E, then moved tenderly into the verse. It was like he was seducing a fine woman — he didn’t want to move too quickly.  His solo erupted on the higher registers of his guitar until, at one point, his abusive bends went too far and he snapped the string. Without even blinking, and only saying a subdued “fuck,” he made use of the other five strings before his roadie brought out an identical Strat. “That’s the great thing about the blues,” Buddy said. “If you make a mistake, you can fix it.”

As the night proceeded, Buddy used every trick at his disposal — he played with his teeth, he held the guitar like a machine gun, he pressed the guitar against his chest and caressed it. During one song, he even walked out into the audience (accompanied by a guard of course — Ithacans are dangerous). It wasn’t gimmicky. It was showmanship from a master of the art form.

As funny as he often was, though, Buddy Guy is also a serious blues historian. Over the course of the night he explored every nook and cranny of blues music. He covered songs by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker and Junior Wells — artists he played with during his tenure as a studio guitarist at Chicago’s legendary Chess Records. He also played classic cuts by artists like Eric Clapton and Marvin Gaye. The most incredible part about all of this is that he had played a hand in the creation or perfection of just about every one of these songs, whether he was an influence on the artist or a contributor to the track.

A master storyteller, Buddy told emotional tales and clever anecdotes — fragments of memories that matched the music in quality and wisdom. At one point, he paused to discuss the Rolling Stones’ influence on American blues music — and his own influence on the Stones. At another, he told the story of his discovery on the streets of Chicago when he was just a penniless musician with stunning talent. The stories would be cliché if he were not the reason those clichés exist.

Near the end of the night, Buddy looked wistfully into the audience. “You don’t hear blues on the radio anymore,” he said, “ but if you call me, I’ll play it for you.” It was a comforting statement. As long as Buddy Guy is around, the blues will never die.

Original Author: Sam Bromer