Laughter from space

By TED DROZDOWSKI  |  December 12, 2006
a tense mob movie, but that title could also serve a documentary about Buddy Guy’s guitar attack. His stage antics from the ’50s into the early ’90s — hanging off rafters, picking strings with his teeth and tongue, sliding his guitar’s face across his belly to make his amps go “aarrgh!”, strolling out into the audience with his instrument plugged into a cable hundreds of feet long — have earned him a reputation as one of the most visceral players in any genre.

Robert Cray has described Guy’s guitar solos as the sound of laughter from space, but they can also echo like the cries of lost souls across the Stygian void. In short, when Guy plays — really plays, instead of teasing audiences with half-formed tunes the way he does too often in concert these days — some serious, funny, or seriously funny shit is gonna happen.

His rafter hanging is through, because, as he sang in one of the Junior Kimbrough tunes he covered in his brilliant, nasty Sweet Tea (Jive) in 2001, he “Done Got Old.” But at 70, Guy deserves the royal treatment he receives in the three-CD/one DVD Can’t Quit the Blues (Silvertone/Legacy). It’s an elegant musical journey guided by extensive liner notes from former VH1 news director and Rolling Stone/Tracks editor Anthony DeCurtis.

This thorough examination of the legend’s half-century career starts with a ragged but howlingly soulful 1957 demo of “The Way You Been Treating Me,” which he cut at a Shreveport radio station. His first recording, it finds Guy reaching for his searing, exploratory style and soul-singing his heart out. Even before fame, he comes off as a sleek modernist, using the same foundation that fellow Louisianians Slim Harpo and Lazy Lester twisted into swamp rock to conjure his own incendiary vision of the blues. Then he’s in Chicago laboring with songwriter Willie Dixon, and the rest is a historic chain of recordings for Chess, Vanguard, and other labels that propelled him to the apex of the blues world, second only to B.B. King — his most direct musical influence, along with ’50s six-string madman Guitar Slim — in the music’s living pantheon.

These 47 songs portray Guy as a performer whose frenzy, improvisational instincts, and tonal control keep stretching with age. Learning at the heels of Muddy Waters didn’t hurt. Waters was a flexible musician who became famous for defining the electric ensemble sound of Chicago blues, yet he abandoned that style for a pair of very different classic albums: the acoustic 1964 Folk Singer, with Guy on second guitar, and 1968’s scrappy, psychedelic Electric Mud (both on Chess). In recent years Guy himself has put aside his trademark guitarslinging to make the acoustic album Blues Singer (represented by “Bad Life Blues” and a cover of John Lee Hooker’s “Crawlin’ Kingsnake” with King and Eric Clapton) and embrace primal North Mississippi juke-joint music with Sweet Tea, which gives this set its pair of Kimbrough covers.

Can’t Quit the Blues’ most recent recordings often find Guy working with acolytes: Clapton, Jeff Beck, Keb’ Mo’, Johnny Lang, Bonnie Raitt, Keith Richards, and John Mayer (who duets with him on the unreleased “I’d Rather Be Blind, Crippled & Crazy”). These can seem like record-company-manufactured pairings, but when he clicks with Raitt, Beck, Clapton, and King, the results are both playful and soulful.

The set also pinpoints Guy’s artistic flaw: songwriting. He’s never been a prolific writer, and even in the ’60s, his own lyrics drew on clichés, so the vast majority of tunes are by others. But as a song interpreter, Guy has always been daring, and at his best his voice and guitar can express the world of human experience.

Ted Drozdowski has written the liner notes to Hooker, the new four-CD John Lee Hooker box set from Shout! Factory.
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