2012 was a year of milestones for Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy, even considering a lengthy career littered with awards and accolades. In February, the guitarist was called upon to perform for President Obama, the First Lady, and guests at the White House, even jamming with the President on "Sweet Home Chicago." In May, Guy saw the release of his much-anticipated autobiography When I Left Home: My Story, the critically-acclaimed tome racing up the best sellers list and, in December, Guy received Kennedy Center Honors, the deserving guitarist inducted along with his acolytes in Led Zeppelin.
With a year such as 2012, what do you do for an encore? If you're Buddy Guy, you release a new album, his first authorized live set since 1998's Last Time Around: Live At Legends, recorded with his old friend Junior Wells. The new Live At Legends disc sneaked into the stores just before Christmas and documents a January 2010 performance by Guy and his road-tested band before the closing of the original venue before its move down the street to more sumptuous digs. Live At Legends captures the Chicago blues legend at his best, doing what he loves – rocking his guitar and holding the audience in the palm of his hand.
Buddy Guy's Live At Legends
Buddy Guy hasn't been shy on a stage since his earliest days in Chicago, and he certainly isn't going to play the shrinking violet on his own damn stage. After a short intro, the guitarist kicks off Live At Legends with a raucous, reckless guitar solo that leads into "Best Damn Fool," from his award-winning 2008 album Skin Deep. The performance is a master class in modern bluesmanship, offering up a stealthy groove courtesy of bassist Orlando Wright and drummer Tim Austin, on top of which keyboardist Marty Sammon lays out his keyboard flourishes and Rick Hall drives the arrangement with his steady rhythm guitarwork.
However, it's Buddy's show, and he puts the pedal to the metal with a series of quick-witted, fleet-fingered solos that rock the roof off the sucker. By the time the song breaks for a short Sammon keyboard solo, the audience welcomes the break, and when Guy jumps back in, it's only to drive the performance to its next destination – a funky, swaggering take on Muddy Waters' classic "Mannish Boy." Delivered as homage to his friend and mentor, Guy also claims the words for his own, assaulting the song's familiar staggered rhythm with incendiary guitar licks that fly like daggers through the mix. Quieting down to almost a whisper, the lyrics lose none of their power in the silence, Guy and his gang using the lead-out to run immediately into Willie Dixon's "I Just Want To Make Love To You."
Damn Right I Got The Blues
A lot of people have recorded Dixon's classic tune, from Waters and Etta James to British blues-rock legends Foghat, but it's safe to say that none have done it quite like Buddy Guy. Forging the electrifying intro with a metallic six-string alloy of blues and hard rock, Guy turns the song into a guitar showcase, breaking at times to roar out the lyrics and, other times, to get the audience involved in the singing of the chorus. Sammon's keyboard solo is 1970s-savvy, with great tone and energy, and the fierce rhythm track is tougher than iron and steel. Guy's six-string pyrotechnics jump the tracks and delve into a bluesier, funkier sound for a spell, the singer dropping in the odd spoken-word segment. The song eventually evolves into Bobby Rush's well-known "Chicken Heads," Guy exclaiming that he "might sing anything tonight!"
The introspective, semi-autobiographical "Skin Deep" is one of the fan favorites, and Guy pays it proper reverence, delivering his most measured and soulful vocal performance of the night. Imbuing the lyrics with a heartfelt edge, by turns Guy's fretwork here is also more subdued, but no less muscular, channeling the emotion of the words into a live tour de force. The guitarist is equally thoughtful on the more up-tempo rocker "Damn Right I Got The Blues," a favorite song from his 1991 breakthrough album of the same name. Peppering the lyrics with shards of bone-cutting licks, Guy pours blood, sweat, and tears into the performance, his strained vocals overshadowed by his incendiary fretwork, which screams and sputters, stomps and stammers above the backing instrumentation.
Jimi Hendrix & Eric Clapton
Now that the band is warmed up and ready to roll, Guy rips into a pair of medleys that illustrate why he was such a large influence on the British blues-rock explosion of the 1960s and '70s. Bands like the Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones picked up on Guy's heavy guitar sound and brought it to a younger (and largely white) audience, opening the door for Guy's own later stardom. With a little historical explanation offered at points, Guy mashes together John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom" (another big influence on those British kids) with Cream's "Strange Brew," the performance interesting but not earth-shaking. You can't say that for Guy's medley of Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile" with Cream's "Sunshine Of Your Love," the veteran Chicago bluesman pumping up the amps with an explosive...although too short...performance.
The "live" part of Live At Legends is actually a mere seven lengthy, albeit satisfying songs long, the album padded out with three studio outtakes recorded in Nashville a couple of months after this live show, ostensibly destined for Guy's Living Proof album but ending up on the cutting room floor sometime over the summer. A co-write between Guy and producer/musician Tom Hambridge, "Polka Dot Love" is a horrible name for a blues song, the performance interesting but unremarkable. Much better is the Hambridge/Delbert McClinton tune "Coming For You," the song evincing a sly rhythmic groove that expertly blends Stax soul and Southern rock with Guy's razor-sharp fretwork and the unrelenting groove of Wayne Jackson and the Memphis Horns. The best of the three studio tracks, though, is Guy's take on Muddy Water's "Country Boy," the guitarist reaching deep into his youth to capture the song's spirit and 1950s-era Chicago blues vibe.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
With a mere thirty-something minutes of actual live music, Live At Legends smells more like something thrown into the stores at haste to take advantage of the TV broadcast of Guy's performance at the Kennedy Center and the holiday buying season. Record label machinations aside, this is still a strong 30 minutes of Buddy Guy, his performance whetting one's appetite for a longer, legitimately full-length live album from the blues legend.
The studio tracks tacked on the end of the CD are solid...entertaining even...but overall, with no disrespect meant to Mr. Guy, Live At Legends seems more like a major label cash-in than anything else. Still, as Guy has never been the most prolific of blues artists (a mere nine studio albums in 21 years), fans such as myself are going to put out the coin for Live At Legends and be quite satisfied with our purchase. But next time, wouldn't it be nice to get a Buddy Guy CD/DVD set along the lines of what Joe Bonamassa has made available to his fans? (Silvertone Records, released December 18, 2012)
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