When the black and blue lights of the crystal chandeliers dimmed at San Francisco’s Fillmore Theater, the clean cut crowd began to politely clap for the opening act. By the end of the show this courtesy would change from a breeze into a gale for relative unknown Shemekia Copeland. She strutted herself on stage, working a pair of black leather capri pants and generating enough electricity to make my fillings tingle. With a short and sultry how-do-you-do, the 23-year-old Copeland dug her high heels in and began a controlled assault on the room, in the form of the cut “Two’s a Crowd” off her latest album Talking to Strangers. The crowd quickly realized that this was no place for manners.
Looking up at the short and solidly built Copeland, it was hard not to recall singers with similar gale-force voices like Aretha Franklin, or the raw, sensuous energy of Etta James; and you could hear the church in her, too. But with these aural landmarks in mind, it seemed a shame to nail Copeland down to a pinpoint on the musical map. The influence that other artists play in Copeland’s work is just as obvious as the new trail she’s blazing through the blues.
Copeland soon had the audience eating out of the palm of her hand. She treated us tenderly, like we were friends she hadn’t seen in years, and fought playfully with her band as though they were family. Copeland spent her teens touring with her father, the late blues guitar genius Johnny Clyde Copeland. So it’s no wonder that being in front of an audience is as natural to her as breathing.
By the time Copeland moved on to sing “The Other Woman” off her 2000 album Wicked, the audience lost its restraint completely and began pressing the stage, trying to get closer to this amazing new talent. They were letting loose with a vengeance I didn’t think they had in them. For a few songs, we forgot Shemekia was only the opening act, as spontaneous dancing broke out across the scuffed wooden floor. Copeland’s powerful lungs blew the blues at us and we did our best to shout right back at her, like a country revival.
With her shortened, opening set winding down, Copeland told us that she had something special to share—a number she wanted to dedicate to the late Chicago bluesman John Lee Hooker, whose club The Boom-Boom Room still stands across the street from the Fillmore. Copeland’s face distorted in pain as she let out the first bars of “Ghetto Child”. The song, off her 1998 debut album Turn Up the Heat, reveals the story of a destitute child told to stay away from school until he can afford a pair of shoes. Copeland ripped her heart out on that song and offered it up to us, taking on the ghetto child’s pain as her own. As the whirlwind of guitar, drum and bass crescendoed, Copeland stepped away from the microphone. To the amazement of us all, she filled the hall with her voice without aid. She wounded us with her words, and fixed us with the medicine of her talent, rocking back and forth on the edge of the stage to finish the song’s story.
A brief thank you and good night brought the once-again smiling Copeland back to the microphone and ended her set. At that point, there was nothing much left to say.
Now the crowd was whipped up into a frenzy. No one bothered to leave the floor, which was awash in glistening faces connected to hands holding plastic cups; and we couldn’t have predicted what was to come next: a surreal blues show from a living legend.
Powered by a swarm of blues and a high-beam smile, Buddy Guy picked right up where Shemekia Copeland left off as he jumped up on stage. A screaming scoop of San Francisco, still hot from Copeland’s backbreaking blues, was ready to follow Guy to the promise land. We had no idea what was in store for us, we just knew we were going. Truth be told, Guy didn’t really know either. The man played what he wanted to when he wanted. That much was clear from the start and it was also fine with everyone at the Fillmore. He could have run for President that night and won 49 states and Florida too.
Guy kicked off the show with an extended version of the blues classic “I Just Wanna Make Love to You”, which his band started in before Guy hit the stage. Guy made the amplifiers bleed and his black and white polka-dot Stratocaster beg for mercy with the beating he inflicted on those strings. He pitched chords over the audience’s heads like he was skipping rocks, and offered his voice up to the microphone like someone had a gun to his head. The man was squeezing out every last drop for us right at the beginning of the show, saving nothing for later. Did I mention that he’s 65? I, for one, was completely off balance after the first song, and I know I wasn’t alone. This is why Eric Clapton calls the man “The greatest blues guitarist, ever.”
In between sips from a blue porcelain cup at his side containing some unknown musical lubricant, Guy instructed us that he had absolutely no plan for the evening. He’d play what he wanted to, and he’d “play it like a motherfucker.” Judging from the expressions on his band members’ faces, it’s clear that Buddy Guy is a man of his word. A brief foray into John Hiatt’s slow-building “Feels Like Rain” was followed by a longer soliloquy on why blues no longer makes the cut on the radio. Guy didn’t want us to do anything about it. He just wanted the audience to know why he had the blues. Then Guy decided that the audience needed to be musically educated, and went about the task meticulously.
Guy quoted from the songbook of Muddy Waters with a rendition of “Hootchie Cootchie Man”, unleashing a piercing slide guitar assail and declamatory howl that made the crowd forget Waters’ passing in 1983. The man wasn’t imitating Waters, he was channeling his spirit, shaking his jeri curls and jumping around stage in an extra large pair of Dickies blue denim overalls. Then he played the same number for us again, this time invoking the stormy demons of Junior Wells, who some say Guy originally borrowed some of his stage antics from.
Guy’s band’s obvious reverence for his status as living legend was matched by their impressive ability to turn on any dime Guy laid down. With Tony Z on keyboard, Jerry Porter on drums, Orlando Wright on bass, Frank Blinkal on guitar and Jason Moynihan on sax, Guy came prepared for any kind of weather. With frequent starts and stops, including several songs killed right in the middle because he didn’t think the audience was feeling them, it seemed like enough to frustrate even the most reverent blues worshippers. But the band members were either used to it or didn’t care, because they never missed a beat. Guy was more than happy to give each of them ample chance to shine, encouraging solos throughout the night and trading licks and chops with the keyboard, guitar and saxophone.
In interviews, Buddy Guy says that when he moved up to Chicago from Baton Rouge, Louisiana in the 1950s he never expected to play music. He was just looking for a better way to make a living, and sort of accidentally fell into playing. From the show he put on at the Fillmore, this story may not be too far from the truth. After 40 years of massaging legendary licks from his Fender Stratocaster, Guy still looked absolutely surprised to be up there on stage. He wore no masks, and was more than happy to tell us exactly what was on his mind. One moment the man seemed happy enough to blow out his birthday candles. The next moment it seemed like he was ready to cry because someone took his birthday away.
If you met him on the street, you’d probably think the man was unstable. But up on stage it was clear that here was a man who could not help but to show you what was in his heart. When his heart told him to jump off the stage and meet the crowd, that’s just what he did. A few minutes into his self-penned “Damn Right I Got the Blues” from the Grammy winning album with the same name, Guy leaped off stage and toured the Fillmore from front to back. Then he ran up the stairs, popping his head and guitar out of every window in the balcony. There were no bad seats in the house that night, and Guy never missed a note on the Stratocaster he carried the whole way.
Returning to the stage, Guy continued with the history lesson, invoking Eric Clapton’s work with Cream and performing a perfect imitation of Jimi Hendrix’s. He tried out a little Marvin Gaye on us too, which left some people scratching their heads. But Guy didn’t care. Like he said before, he didn’t have a plan, and he was playing up there as much for himself as for the audience.
At the end, it was Guy and an acoustic guitar perched on an old wooden chair at the front of the stage. Guy could still play the delta blues of his Louisiana roots. With his wrinkled eyelids closed, Guy’s husky voice turned the stuffy theater air into a humid bayou night. We swayed and nodded, listening to the man on stage who had taken a thick soup of music and reduced it to down to one last helping.
With a sudden flourish of energy, Guy put down his guitar and began signing autographs for the audience. He cared about his people, and for five minutes fans handed him everything from San Francisco Giants baseball hats to worn stuffed animals. He happily obliged everyone, signing each item with a black Sharpie. Then, with a wave, Guy walked off the stage. The band, apparently used to this sort of exit, took their cue and began what I can only describe as a psychedelic jam session in the vein of Pink Floyd or Traffic. To put it mildly, it’s not how I expected a Buddy Guy show to end. But ten minutes later, after the lighting technician turned on the mirror ball overhead, and the crowd chanted Buddy Guy’s name, it was clear he wasn’t coming back out. When the house lights came back on we realized that the man was still doing just what he wanted to. Buddy Guy had slipped off into the night.