Few blues musicians bear the burden of history as heavily as Buddy Guy. Along with fellow west-siders Magic Sam and Otis Rush, Guy stormed onto the Chicago scene in the late 50s with a searing, high-voltage guitar attack augmented by tormented lyrics, a passionate vocal delivery, and an energy level far more intense that that of the more traditional south-side men. That style, soon characterized as west-side blues, was the style most admired and copied in the 1960s by young white bluesmen such as Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, and was the primal influence behind the music of Jimi Hendrix.
In recent years, Buddy Guy has come under scathing criticism from those who feel he’s abandoned the emotional depth and musical subtlety of the blues for a bowdlerized hybrid polluted by rock, funk, and pyrotechnics. Although his technical ability has never been in doubt, his commitment to the authentic spirit of the blues has been questioned and even dismissed in many quarters. Most commonly, Guy is accused of being obsessed with the music of Hendrix, and with vainly attempting to emulate Clapton, Jeff Beck, and the rest of the British pretenders to the blues throne.
Guy’s recent appearance at Cotton Chicago, James Cotton’s new entry in the Chicago blues club circuit (in what used to be CrossCurrents), settled none of the arguments. It did, however, reaffirm one vital fact often missed by his harshest critics: almost alone of his generation, Guy consistently delivers an emotional charge undiminished since his glory days with Cobra Records in the late 1950s. Even at its most histrionic, the music of Buddy Guy tears into you like a steel-bladed knife in a west-side alley.
On the other hand, it must be admitted that there was plenty of evidence at Cotton Chicago to support many of the charges leveled against him. All too often, Guy treats ballads as necessary nuisances to be endured before digging into the metallic onslaughts that follow jarringly on the heels of even his most tender and melodic solos. On a song like “Fever,” for instance, he has demonstrated an ability to turn the jet down to a smoldering, low flame and deliver blues of unmatched sensuality and power; but at this gig, he approached it like any other, medium-slow ballad, starting off gently with a series of lightly articulated runs. and gradually building up to the inevitable frenetic climax.
There were other problems as well. Guy’s famous onstage ebullience slipped over the line into self-parody on more than one occasion, most notably with embarrassing arm flapping during “Stormy Monday,” as he sang the verse, “The eagle files on Friday.” And when he cranked up the volume and fired off his endless exploding riffs, all screaming treble and chaotic note clusters with seemingly no pattern, direction, or reason except pure noise, one could easily understand why many who love the subtle soulfulness of classic Chicago blues have written Guy off.
But as the night wore on, and after one’s ears and musical sensibilities got used to the sonic assault, it became apparent that many who criticize him are missing most of the point. It’s too often forgotten that, long before Hendrix or Clapton ever picked up a guitar, Buddy Guy was playing music that was as different from the Chicago blues that had come before as his current style is different from his own early creations. He and his contemporaries on Cobra were largely responsible for freeing the blues from the melodic restrictions of the deeply emotional but sparse Delta tradition. Just as Robert Johnson had imbued the blues with a new emotional intensity and nightmarish poetic vision in the 1930s with songs like “Hellhound on My Trail” and “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day,” forever changing the face and soul of the music, so did Buddy Guy, Magic Sam, and Otis Rush lead a similar revolution in the late 50s and early 60s.
Guy, then, is simply doing what he’s always done: staying one step ahead–in terms of energy, speed, and flamboyance–of history. The man seems bound and determined to make every song his own, imposing all the fire and fury he can muster onto everyone and everything in his musical path. After a while, the songs themselves become almost interchangeable and even irrelevant; the power of Guy’s musical personality becomes the entire point of the performance.
Thus, he roared into the raunchy standard “Chicken Heads” with a no-holds-barred metallic attack that completely overwhelmed the funky sensuality of the song’s rhythm, screaming out the lyrics in the same tense, agonized voice he uses in his most personal and intimate blues testimonials; his tender, whispering guitar solo in the middle of Eddie Boyd’s “Five Long Years” was suddenly drowned by a strident, Hendrix-like war cry that beat and battered the song’s wistful melancholy into quivering submission; and perhaps most revealing of all, a series of musical tributes–to John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, and Muddy Waters–became a showcase for Guy’s own irreverent clowning as he cut songs short in mid-verse, threw in riffs from Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love,” and in general insisted on planting his own personal stamp on everything he touched.
In the midst of it all, however, Guy occasionally demonstrated that he hasn’t entirely forsaken the more subtle aspects of the music. His show-stopping, gently purred version of “As the Years Go Passing By” is a legend on the south side, where Guy does most of his playing when he’s in town; while he didn’t approach that level of sublimity at Cotton Chicago, he did more than justice to Johnny Taylor’s topical “It’s Still Called the Blues,” demonstrating that his voice can deliver a message every bit as expressively and passionately as it could during his late-50s heyday.
It was here as well that the depth of his genius as a guitarist became obvious. Slow, smooth bends, writhing sensuously over and beneath the melody line, were interspersed with fleet, spidery runs the length of the fretboard, brushing softly against the listener’s ears like breath. Guy fused his much-vaunted technical proficiency with his profound blues feeling to create a music of sensitivity and wonder, even as he sang Taylor’s wry lyrics and engaged the room in playful call-and-response antics. And when it was all over, he flashed his shy, dimple-cheeked smile at the crowd, almost as if he were embarrassed at having allowed himself a moment of such intimacy. The rapport he establishes with an audience during times like this is a marvel to behold; he works a crowd as well as anyone still performing, and unlike his contemporary Junior Wells, he seldom lets his ego, or his propensity for vocal tricks and falsetto sound effects, get in the way of the music.
After being bathed for an evening in Guy’s high-energy force field, one begins to understand where some of the fire and near-desperate drive of his style comes from. He was a pathfinder, as unique and important in his own way as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter were in theirs. He took a music of great expressiveness and subtlety and stripped it to its bare bones of emotion while simultaneously imbuing it with a baroque complexity that forever changed its nature. The history Guy must wrestle with is his own; the only person he must stay ahead of is himself.
And therein lies the irony, and also the clue to the frenetic emotionalism of Buddy Guy’s music. After playing a significant role in redefining one of the major popular art forms of the century, what do you do for an encore? Muddy Waters hit the college circuit, sat back and relaxed, and became the regal elder statesman he said he’d always dreamed of being; Howlin’ Wolf remained, until the end, the great shaman of Chicago blues, an undiminished source of primal power, unquenchable and finally victorious in his obstinate refusal to compromise; Willie Dixon used his quick wit and entrepreneurial ability to embellish his own legend and carve for himself a permanent niche in the popular imagination; Otis Rush retreated into seclusion and mystery, only recently resurfacing to play tame, subdued versions of his old standards; too many others died young, dropped by the wayside, or gave up in disgust.
Buddy Guy has stayed on the scene and confounded the stereotype by remaining sane, healthy, and determined to stay musically fresh. His legendary late-60s encounter with Hendrix, in which Hendrix told Guy that he’d been following his music for years, and Guy answered, “Well, from what I’ve been hearing, I’ve been following you!” is illustrative of the unique musical burden Guy carries. As he plays on and advances the style he helped invent, Guy finds himself accused of imitating his own students; to remain as iconoclastic as he was during his early days, he must constantly keep one step ahead of his own creation, crank up the decibels and the energy level one more notch, lest his own ghost overtake him. It’s an old blues story, with a new twist; the hellhound on Robert Johnson’s trail has been transformed.
One of Buddy Guy’s classic early performances was a Johnson-like cover of the late Little Brother Montgomery’s “The First Time I Met the Blues.” It’s a haunting, nightmarish song in which the singer is chased out of his house and into the woods by the blues in the form of a nameless, faceless horror. He finally pleads for his life: “Yea-ess you shoulda heard me beggin’ blues, aieeee! Blues, don’t murder me!” One can only speculate what demons or horrors prompted Montgomery to write the song back in 1936, or what made it speak so intimately to Guy in 1959. But nearly 30 years later, the music of Buddy Guy retains the same wracked, near-hysterical intensity that characterized his performance on that record. The style has been adapted to the post-rock ‘n’ roll 80s; instead of inviting you into his nightmare, Guy tears, slashes, and brutalizes his way into yours. But one gets the feeling that after all these years of staying one step ahead of the monster he helped create, Buddy Guy is still being run from tree to tree and hounded by a nameless terror called the blues. And it’s wearing his own face.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Booz.