Buddy Guy

[16 January 2006]

By William Glasspiegel

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs.
—Wallace Stevens

Like Chicago, Buddy Guy has a mind of winter. He freezes you. Then, he cuts you up.

In the Windy City, the first month of the year belongs to Buddy Guy. Every January, Guy plays a month-long stand (every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening) at his downtown blues club, Buddy Guy’s Legends. Though it does attract tourists, Guy’s club isn’t some inauthentic concert hall. It’s a joint where you eat the blues for dinner, and then drink them for dessert.

Like his compatriot B.B. King, Guy is a marketing beast (the good kind, whose marketing enlarges his musicianship). With trademark polka dots and a sexy new website, Guy’s live music advances his larger network: a club in Chicago, a new record, and star-studded collaborations with everyone from Carlos Santana to the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ Jimbo Mathus.

Though Guy hails from Louisiana, his last two albums were recorded at Mathus’ studio in Clarksdale, Mississippi. By bringing his blues to Mississippi, Guy takes the music full circle. After all, Clarksdale is where Muddy Waters boarded the train for Chicago. It’s the most fertile land in the country - both for cotton and the blues. By returning to the roots, Guy invokes the North Mississippi style of R.L. Burnside and seamlessly synthesizes it with electric Chicago.

At the ripe age of 69, Guy still stands strong in performance—the rust adds to the reward. After doing this for so long, his blues seem less a lament and more a testament to the refinement of his spirit.

Even when Guy seems to show his age, his band keeps it tight. Guy’s saxophone accompaniment was especially strong on this first night of his January series. Jay Moynahan blew boldly and propelled the music forward. It was enough to make you wince.

Between songs, Guy was a consummate man of the people. He delivered many long-winded, profanity-spiced monologues. Guy had a lot to say, even if some of it was indecipherable.

The only lull in the evening was when Guy ran through a half-hearted crowd pleaser, “Mustang Sally”. But he can be forgiven: playing the same song for 40 years would give anyone the blues, and what was missing in “Mustang Sally” reared its head later. Deep in it, Guy went wireless and descended into the crowd for some extended shredding. Of course, he balanced the blood-thirst of this moment with sentimentality at other points. Though Guy hasn’t lost his edge, what rang most true was his soft side—his love of Chicago.

For a generation of musicians accustomed to singing about rambling and running, Chicago represented a city where they could stay; where they could shed; and where, in Guy’s words, they could play some “funky fucking blues.” Alongside Muddy Waters and other Chess Records alums, Guy came to Chicago in the ‘50s. It’s been his home ever since.

Guy didn’t play “Sweet Home Chicago” (it’s sure to come later this month). Instead, he dedicated Albert King’s classic, “As the Years Go By” to the city of Chicago. “My love will follow you as the years go passing by,” he sang in a crinkled but sonorous voice.

This night was Guy’s first of sixteen shows in Chicago. Thankfully, he’ll keep it going for another few weeks. Like Albert King, Guy is a master of dynamics. When he whispers, it’s a knife that doesn’t quite break the skin. But when he cuts, it’s decisive; he only needs a few notes to carve a masterpiece.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/guy-buddy-060105/