[13 December 2009]
The crowd at Genesee Theater was already primed to hear Dave Mason’s set, judging by the enthusiastic screams as the band came onstage to witness anxious smiles. Mason, dressed in black, still boasts hearty vocals and strong riffs, as he proved jangling through the first several numbers.
His tight and multi-talented touring band stems from opposite corners of the country: guitarist and South Floridian Johnne Sambataro is now in his fourth year with Mason; bassist Gerald Johnson was born in Washington DC is a veteran Mason player now living in L.A.; Alvino Bennett, Chicago-born, was musical director and has played with Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Mighty Joe Young and Bo Diddley (Bennett met Mason’s brother Bill in California in 2003 and the friendship resulted in his securing a steady working relationship with the band). Anthony Patler manned the keys and provided unique embellishments throughout the set.
Mason, the singer-songwriter and co-founder of Traffic, who at the age of 19 wrote “Feelin’ Alright”, which was recorded by 48 artists and made particularly famous by Joe Cocker, has also been immersed in fund-raising. He’s an advocate for a foundation called “Work Vessels for Vets”. In a touching letter, a soldier deployed in Iraq for nine months, explains that because so many vets experience PTSD, they can’t maintain livelihoods. The foundation matches up vehicles with soldiers so they can access their jobs.
This Worchester, England-born legacy maintained almost a somber appearance compared to the wildly animated Johnson who frequently made weird facial expressions while squirming and contorting his body into near- figure eights while working his fingers rapidly down the bass. Though Johnson was amusing, I found his antics a distraction at times, though Mason seemed to eat it up and pockets of tittering beer drinkers shared in the mirth. It appeared to be an over-forty crowd jam-packed with avid followers, many of whom were bickering about which song was from which Traffic album and which songs Mason would include or neglect in this evening’s set list.
Patler treated us to some crisp keyboard work and the alt-percussionist who battled the congos with his turquoise and black western style shirt seemed to enjoy the high-energy pulse as well.
Mason’s most recent release, 26 Letters and 12 notes, provided ample kindling for the all-engulfing fiery set. Mason announced there would be “A couple of new things here” and noodled with some knobs whereupon Johnson harped “Can’t you read the buttons?” Mason dryly remarked “Relax.”
Mason enjoyed the “wah-wah” for several of the first numbers, and then took out his acoustic to a host of grateful sighs. “There ain’t no good guy and there ain’t no bad guy” he sermoned against the tousle of tambourine. Mason complained that “Most of radio is a disaster. They don’t play artists like myself.” Then a singular emotional voice rang out, “We love you, Dave.”
“I’m crazy in this prison cell” he wailed while Johnson strutted on stage making yet another cartoonish expression. Lyrics about “fast cars, fast girls” whirred by as the sweeping backing harmonies shadowed hard drivin’ percussion. A beautiful acoustic riff makes the song “Shouldn’t Have Took More Than You Gave” which, though sparse on lyrics, is instrumentally catchy and led to a substantial jam. The Traffic hit “Dear Mr. Fantasy” brought the crowd to a standing ovation. The intimate theater setting worked well. Chandeliers and velvet chairs, stadium seating and a spacious lobby were accoutrements which made the evening a relaxing one. It was easy to see the stage from most seats in the near-packed house, therefore the vibe of the audience was less frenetic than at standing only venues.
Buddy Guy: The Man Who Should Be King
Some things are to be tasted and chewed and others swallowed. The average guitarist is worthy of a glance at a pub crawl, but those more extraordinary must be savored. Buddy Guy is that extraordinary. Though he has frequently shared the stage with his colleague B.B. King, Guy is a performer to which no other can hold a candle. He is the man who should be proclaimed king. He shares the stage this evening with Marty Sammon on keys and vocals, Tim Austin on drums, and Orlando Wright and Rick Holland on guitar.
If you’ve heard his recordings you may have gotten a taste or a swallow of his technical facility and his repertoire which stands out as being historically and culturally “roots” rich and emotionally extravagant, but in order to fully digest his excellence, you must get your sweet butt off the couch and see this man as he maneuvers a live fan base.
It was my first time seeing this all-consuming performer and I felt ashamed of my own stubborn streak. I had never actually bothered to see Guy as I thought he’d always be around. You know the types who go see the Peruvian claim-to-fame Machu Pichu, but don’t bother with Cahokian sacred mounds? They’re both mysterious, but one is geographically undesirable, so go there first, as you’ll always get a chance to see the neighborhood gems at your convenience. Yeah, it was a dumb move.
Wearing an over-sized black hat with a brim plummeting towards his perfect cheek bones, Guy drinks the stage. He is a showman, a versatile guitarist, a physical comic and vocalist who purrs, growls, grovels and grunts and occasionally rants between syllable counts. If that doesn’t keep your adrenaline soaring, a gulp of his mid-song falsetto will. You’d never believe he’s in his 70s. His skin is silky smooth, his body lean and his eyes gleam with mirth. He smirks like a teenager and delivers asides that make us laugh at our own type A sensibilities.
He’s in your face like a spiraling cyclone after a hail storm as he boasts “I’m just as good as it gets / Girl / I’m gonna make you sweat.” The song “Best Damn Fool” is one of the most memorable in his repertoire. Piano stabs of jazz and blues punctuate the rhythm section.
Guy ventures downstage and in a seductive tone offers, “I’m so happy I’m on one leg tonight, but I’m gonna give you the best. I’m gonna play the blues for you.” He points a lone finger at the audience and rubs his creamy, white guitar across his chest like an alpha-male proclaiming a sacred spot on a mountain.
Guy leans in closer and says, “Didn’t want to tell you this, but I can’t keep it inside of me” and he sings Willie Dixon’s and Muddy Water’s stand-out “Hootchie Cootchie Man”. The lyrics are delightfully juicy, and listening to them is like sucking on butterscotch candies. As you crunch through the hard covering, you discover slick, satisfying sweet liquid. Holland, Guy’s other guitarist, wears a black and white bandana. He spins his guitar around. He is given time to play a stellar solo. Tonight on stage with Guy it’s evident that if you play with Buddy you best play. It’s as if a three-ring circus has set up canopies. Your senses will be captivated.
“Y’all got me feeling good already. This is the kind of blues I was raised on. Take me home with you this morning girl,” Guys begs. Next, he performs a tongue-in-cheek extravaganza with “Nineteen Years Old”. His voice sputters like a disconnecting tailpipe. “Now, don’t look at me. I didn’t write this song,” he bristles. But, the next song brings his comic touches centerstage. ”Gotta woman / Good and fat…” he begins. “One leg was in the east / One leg was in the west / I was slidin’ in the middle,” he chronicles.
Each note and word is reflected in his face and in every fold of his pants. He continues, “When I was slippin’out / Someone else was slippin’ in.”
Guy is completely efficient in the way he expresses humor and emotion. He uses his fist, eyes and the hunching of his shoulders to keep you so glued to his torso, that one almost forgets that he’s simultaneously laying down some lightning-quick runs and rhythmic chord progressions. He instigates gasps around the intimate room.
At the age of seven, the young, (possibly psychic) future bluesman created a primitive two- stringed instrument secured with his mother’s hairpins. In 1957 Guy headed to Chicago and in the ‘60s and ‘70s battled musicians such as Guitar Slim, Muddy Waters, Otis Rush and Magic Slim in sundry Chicago haunts, while managing to squeeze in sessions at the famed Chess Records.
He appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone at age 72 as part of a feature on the “100 Greatest Guitar Songs” for his hit “Stone Crazy”. His material has been covered by Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and Stevie Ray Vaughan and in 2005 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His 2008 album Skin Deep featured original songs and possibly a renaissance in artistic freedom, while in the ‘70s and ‘80s he proved to be extremely prolific, recording no less than 20 releases. Guy has also been instrumental in mentoring younger artists, in particular the tween prodigy Quinn Sullivan.
Of course, the music industry is never static. This evening Guy complains about the flailing record business admonishing, “When you’re a blues player an old CD is a new CD. They don’t play it on the radio. Call ME and I’ll sing it for you.”
What’s amazing tonight is how Guy switches gears so three-dimensionally and subtly from being a scatological flirt to a sentimental son. Guy introduces “Skin Deep” by saying that his mother used the expression “Beauty is only skin deep.” But he goes on to say, “Been around awhile, I know when things aren’t right, underneath don’t we all look the same? Treat everyone the way you want them to treat you,” he reminds us.
But, before your mood deepens as you wonder what it was like to be a young African-American child in those Jim Crow days prior to the civil rights movement, Guy has already outsmarted you and has moved off-stage to placate a small group of admirers. Now in the trenches he faces-off mesmerized fans in the first row. He’s singing “My father told me don’t you rush to be a man…” Slender fingers press keenly into the fretboard and he convincingly sings “Rock Me Baby”. He grabs some drumsticks and bangs them against the pic guard and gyrates the whammy bar. Some of us crane our necks to get the goods, but no worries. He’s keenly aware that we, too, want a piece. It’ll happen.
“Gotta pocketful of money” he beams as he winces at the effusive Sammon who also keeps the energy flowing with his big smile and theatrical moves. Sammon and Guy call and respond—ever cognizant of the admiring gazes they cultivate. Guy has the art of entertainment down to a sonar and visual science, and at this point you wouldn’t be surprised to see Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling.
He talks about the influence of John Lee Hooker and then sings an almost surreal rendition of “Strange Brew” in falsetto. He chats us up about Eric Clapton’s desire to hear Guy play when he comes to town. As if this monologue and the energy of the backing musicians weren’t enough, blues harpist Malcolm Stoller is invited up to play.
Buddy Guy is a man who was responsible for setting in place the amplified west Chicago guitar phenomenon. Guy was revered by the late Jimi Hendrix. Guy was sought after by British guitar icons. Through it all, Guy, though Louisiana born. has remained on our mid-western shores and though Chicago-land may be penned the “Second City”, blues icons here (such as Guy) are absolutely first-class.
Life slows down a tad as Guy’s vocals hush on “And It Feels Like Rain”. He milks and squeezes each note, be it from his trusty guitar or his very well-oiled voice, making sure the desired effect is achieved, which is a happy constituency. “Move back down to Louisiana / Move back down behind the sun / Just found out this morning / My trouble just begun,” Guy bleeds. He’s been playing virtually non-stop for a show that seemed to fly by in minutes. He blows kisses and throws pics to the grateful audience. Alright, alright, I took my sweet time, but I am no longer a Buddy Guy virgin and I’m damn proud.