Buddy Guy is one of the biggest blues acts that there is – period. His career began as a session player nearly five decades ago when he was keeping company with names like Muddy Water and Howlin’ Wolf. He would eventually leave the prestigious Chess records when they were unwilling to accept his new style of playing; however, in spite of this setback, Guy went on to huge success and influenced many musicians including Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. To see him playing live has been on my to-do list for a long time and last night at the Centre in the Square, Kitchener, Ontario, Buddy Guy proved that even at 71, he still knows how to rock out.
To say that his band members (Tim Austin on drums, Ric Hall on guitar, Orlando Wright on bass and the seemingly caffeine-fueled keyboard player Marty Sammon) were tight would be the understatement of the century. Buddy proudly confided to us at the beginning of the show that he never rehearses his band – at all – and there was no reason to doubt this judgment as he ripped into solo after solo. With psychic navigation, the band followed closely as Buddy shimmied into a few bars of “She’s Nineteen Years Old,” only to have him pause, chat a little and then propel himself, completely unannounced, into full throttle Jimi Hendrix. Molten hot and flawless as Buddy’s soloing always is, (he was playing guitar with a drumstick at one stage, later treating the fret board like a piano) the band’s ability to straddle him just as he changed direction was stupefying; in fact, it was accomplished so seamlessly that I did not realize till later that he had only played a few songs in their entirety. This did make for an oddly disjointed audience experience at times though and there was also a general feeling that Buddy was sometimes growing impatient with the mostly older-white-and-desperate-to-please audience gathered there. He warned us once, for example, that his requested echo of “I Just Wanna Make Love To You” was not going to cut it. At one point he actually insisted that the lights go up so he could see who was screwing up so badly, and there were more than a few folks giggling nervously just in case he wasn’t kidding.
But apart from that (and overlooking the few times that the show went a bit PG-13 and Buddy was moved to share, quite randomly, exactly why he prefers big women) the night remained golden. He definitely doesn’t do a ‘greatest hits’ tour but quite frankly he’s earned the right to do what he likes – he is a legend after all. Even though he is older now (“and hey, I know what time it is,” he quipped in reference to this) his vocals are still varied and impressive, hurtling from a soulful whisper one minute to an anguished banshee-like wail the next and all the while convincing his guitar to follow along at super-human speed. Fellow blues legend Mel Brown also joined Buddy onstage towards the end of the night and dished up some incredible old school improv. Buddy bowed out of the spotlight for his friend, offering occasional encouragement with his guitar a few paces away.
An unexpected bonus of the show was Steve Strongman, a local artist who was the opening act. Modest and unassuming, Strongman was obviously thrilled to be sharing the same floor space as Buddy Guy and came prepared to do the job right. His mastery of the slide guitar was especially evident and his playing skills were equally matched by some really searing vocals. Strongman is a player who has earned his touring chops honestly and now seems poised for greatness himself. A new CD, Honey,offers an impressive sampler – mostly his own compositions – and is definitely well worth a listen.
And finally, not sure where to start with Buddy's work? An excellent starter would be Buddy's Baddest.Truly, it's all good.