“People don’t know the blues,” guitarist/singer/songwriter Buddy Guy, who turned 77 today, told a packed house at Iridium Jazz Club in NYC last night. The show was video-taped, presumably for a PBS showing next fall. “They say the blues is sad, but when B.B. King sings ‘I got a sweet little angel, I love the way she spreads her wings,’ I don’t know what’s sad about that.”
Guy’s own set, featuring his tight quintet, two backup singers and guest guitarists Quinn Sullivan (his amazing 14-year-old protege) and Gary Clark Jr., featured songs from his just-released 2-cd album Rhythm & Blues that were much more about exuberance than bad luck and trouble. His main complaint is that there’s little blues on the blues anymore, (pace Bob Porter and Steve Cushing). Oh, Buddy’s tangled with some tough women, cf “(I Think I Married) The Devil’s Daughter” on the new recording, but he’s never been one for bleakness and despair. His guitar playing, especially, has always been about breaking out and busting loose, which is why Jimi Hendrix lauded Buddy as an influence, why Muddy Waters brought Buddy into his band in the ’60s, wby he was house guitarist for Chess and backed up Big Mama Thornton and Little Walter Jacobs on “Hound Dog,” how he balanced the dramatic stage act of his dear departed partner Junior Wells. For proof, see the terrific videos below.
“We had a whole lot of fun,” Buddy said of Junior with all due rue at Iridium, before launching into their infectious theme song, “Messin’ with the Kid.” On the cd, Kid Rock tries to fill Junior’s shoes, but like too many pretenders, doesn’t distinguish squalling from soul.
That’s not the case for Buddy. His own vocal chorus on “Messin’” on the record is full-throated and authoritative. Several times last night he sang in his angelic yet not quite innocent upper register, with a broad smile on his face even when he seemed to be pleading. His new album is highly produced — on some tracks there are horns, backup singers and sitters-in Steve Tyler, Joe Perry, Bradford Whitford, Beth Hurt, Keith Urban, Beth Hurt — and the extras don’t blunt the music’s edge. That’s because the spine of it all is Guy’s undiminished guitar genius, which does not stop at his trademark flashy licks, instead frequently reaching for more dissonant clusters, abstract sound effects and keening, zillion-note phrases.
An American icon who’s received a Kennedy Center lifetime achievement award from President Obama in 2012, an honorary doctorate from Louisiana State University earlier this year, several Grammies etc., Buddy Guy (aka Friendly Chap) takes his age and experience seriously, as a point of pride and mastery. When the crowd at Iridium called out “Happy Birthday, Buddy!” he replied, “Don’t push me, I still got a couple hours left.” But in the next moment, he was convincingly staking his claim to relevance and vigor. “There ain’t nothing I haven’t done/I’ve been a dog and I’ve been a tom cat/I’ve chased some tail and left some tracks . . .When it comes to lovin’/I ain’t never done./ I feel like I’m 21/But I’m 77 years young!” He wrote and recorded that as “74 Years Young” three years ago, and evidently hasn’t lost a step. We should all be so lucky. Here’s hoping — and happy birthday, many more, Buddy!