Guitarist Phil Guy grew up in Lettsworth, Louisiana, absorbing acoustic sides by Smokey Hogg, Lightnin’ Slim, and Lightnin’ Hopkins from his father’s record collection. But like his older brother Buddy, who was already playing out when Phil was in his early teens, Guy modeled himself on electric fretmen like New Orleans’s Guitar Slim. In 1969, after about a decade performing with Baton Rouge-based harpist Raful Neal, he arrived in Chicago and within a few years he’d joined his brother’s band, which often featured Junior Wells as a coheadliner. Since the late 70s, however, Guy has been on his own, and his sound, unlike Buddy’s, has remained solidly rooted in the sparse, fervid style of his gulf-coast idols. Though his recordings haven’t yet captured his full power, 1999’s Say What You Mean (JSP) comes enticingly close. Guy continually confounds a listener’s expectations: he’ll set up what promises to be an elegant extended phrase (a sweet tone, with supple string bends reminiscent of B.B. King), then ferociously and unexpectedly truncate it. He also flirts with dissonance, bending entire chords. He’s at his best on the title tune: his vocals, meaty and raw, quiver desperately on the higher passages, heightening the urgency of the lyrics (“Nothing we can do / Don’t pay ’em no mind / ‘Cuz pretty soon now baby / Gonna leave this scene behind”). His leads are crafted as a series of plateaus: he spins and twirls downward, then reverses himself, obsessively worries a note or phrase, breaks free, and ascends to the next level. Then he repeats the routine, masterfully evoking the caged optimism that propels the song. Friday, September 20, 10 PM, Reservation Blues, 1566 N. Milwaukee; 773-645-5200.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Fraher.