[10 May 2009]
Buddy Guy almost needs no introduction. He should be that way (given his stature not only in Chicago blues, but in other styles as well), but it’s easy to get the sense that more people know him as an influence on Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan than as an artist in his own right. The Definitive Buddy Guy could help change that, but it’s an ambitious undertaking. The compilers of this set have attempted to create a single-disc collection that covers his entire career, instead of just focusing on one period or one label. For the most part, the recording succeeds, but there are some limitations to the collection that can’t be overlooked.
Musically, Guy’s work is nearly impeccable. Whether he’s tearing it up on guitar (“Stone Crazy”), setting down a groove (“Hoodoo Man Blues” and Junior Kimbrough’s “Baby Please Don’t Leave Me”), or showcasing his songwriting and all-around artistry (“Ten Years Ago”), it’s hard to complain about any of these selections. Guy remains one of the pre-eminent artists in his field by doing all the things we expect from the greats: showing virtuosity, expressing emotion, choosing quality songs, interacting well with the band as a whole, etc. In capturing a variety of sounds and moods, the disc serves as a great introduction to Guy’s oeuvre.
The number of cuts with Junior Wells proves especially compelling and demonstrates why their long partnership produced such great music. The live version of “Checkin’ on My Baby” here features Pinetop Perkins on piano and Bill Wyman on bass, as much an interesting note to have as an exciting performance.
As good as this music is, it’s impossible to resist commenting on the music that isn’t here. Particularly strange is the lack of music from Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues, an album essential to Guy’s resurgence in the ‘90s. Likewise, even though the liner notes point out the other records that won Best Contemporary Blues Album Grammys (Feels Like Rain and Slippin’ In), neither disc has representative songs on this compilation. That’s a small quibble given the many years and recordings Guy has to draw from, but it seems strange to neglect a key era in his career (especially or because of Guy’s commerical success at the time), especially when space is given to it in the liner notes.
The presence of that era in the notes wouldn’t be remarkable, except that the notes are so brief. We shouldn’t expect a box-set style analysis or history, but it’s a failure for a disc that attempts to be so encompassing to give so little information about either the artist or these particular recordings. Given that the tracks on the compilation aren’t sequenced in any special order (there’s only a loose sense of chronology), it would have been useful to have some sort of context provided for them. In providing so little writing, the package offers little for the Guy fan, and gives just a spare introduction to the newcomer.
Of course, that may be all we can expect out this sort of project. The time limitations of a single disc are inherently restrictive, so 17 strong tracks do what they can for an overview. It’s unfortunate that the notes don’t make more sense out of what’s presented in The Definitive Buddy Guy, but that shouldn’t be held too much against it. Long-time fans might not need this collection, but it should work well for those just beginning to explore. It makes the title term “definitive” a little silly, but otherwise it does the job.