Buddy Guy’s musical integrity is not going anywhere. It is firmly cemented in the earth, as sturdy as Chicago’s oldest buildings. The anxieties that the great blues guitarist experienced at the dawn of the ’90s, a genuine concern for the future of blues music and how its heritage may get lost, are but a footnote now. If anything, those feelings can be given credit for leading to his late-career revival as Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues paved the way for some pretty adventurous stuff for a guy who passed 50 a while ago. You had the David Z.-produced crossover attempt Heavy Love, the mud-of-the-earth approach to Blues Singer and Sweet Tea, and Guy just doing what he felt like with Bring ‘Em In and Skin Deep. The Tom Hambridge-produced Rhythm & Blues continues along these lines. As of this writing, Buddy Guy is almost 77. For every corny lyric, for every enthusiastic count-off, for every goofy grin that he strikes on the photos inside the liner notes, for every unnecessary guest star cameo that doesn’t really contribute to a song, a listener can easily forgive Guy. It’s a double album, built for fun. In other words, save your too-many-songs-cut-this-cut-that bitching for The White Album.
Rhythm & Blues is split into, get ready for it, discs called “Rhythm” and “Blues”. This feels arbitrary for the most part, with most of the songs fitting the blues/rock mold nicely with plenty of mean guitar licks bolstered by Guy’s sonorous voice. Many tracks are co-written with drummer/producer Tom Hambridge, but room is made for some standards like “Messin’ With the Kid”, “Poison Ivy” and “Well I Done Got Over It”. The overall feel of the music, if not the overall quality, is consistent over the 21 songs that span 80 minutes; up-tempo blues sprinkled with plenty of pep. Which material is weak and which is strong is subject to individual opinion, but a performance itself never suffers. The horns still bite, the rhythm section still snaps and, as far as Guy and his guitar go, he might as well be half his current age.
Rhythm & Blues has plenty of vocal duets, some that seem to come out of nowhere in their oddness. One that I can’t get away with not mentioning is Guy’s sharing of the mic with Keith Urban on “One Day Away”, a gentle soul number that gets batted around mid-flight by incongruous nose singing. Beth Hart is, in theory, better suited for this material. Still, the Joplin-like bark that announces her arrival in “What You Gonna Do About Me” is swift and jarring. Gary Clark, Jr.’s pipes sure do sound small next to Guy’s on “Blues Don’t Care”, even though his manner of singing fits the music just fine. Over half of Aerosmith show up in the studio for “Your Evil Twin”, a slow burning number that attempts to justify a woman’s alleged hanky-panky; “It must have been your evil twin.” Steven Tyler’s fried voice is not unkind to the song, though his description of a “heart-shaped booty” doesn’t make things less ridiculous. Guitar solos are traded, though the liner notes don’t specify when Guy nods to Joe Perry and Brad Whitford to take over. Kid Rock’s strained throat and use of the word “motherfucker” on the Junior Wells hit “Messin’ With the Kid” just makes me pine for a copy of Briefcase Full of Blues. In the tradition of old-fashioned blues duets, no one is singing with Guy. They’re all just trading lines. But one thing that these five songs do is remind you that Buddy Guy is in fact a strong singer.
Apart from that, Rhythm & Blues revolves around hard times, mother love, windy city pride, the intuition of the blues, and finding out that Satan is your father-in-law. It’s the sound of Buddy Guy, armed with his crooked smile and polka-dot guitar, reinforcing rather than reinventing what he has done. And it’s fun.