Graded on a Curve:
Buddy Guy,
Rhythm & Blues

As one of the few exponents of the Chicago Blues who’s still alive and kicking, the appearance of a new Buddy Guy album can be sorta difficult not to like, even if the results are overall somewhat less than thrilling. His new one, a two-disc 77th birthday affair adorned with the simple title Rhythm & Blues, falls securely into this zone. It finds the singer-guitarist in solid command of his oft-celebrated mastery, but sadly ill-served by surroundings that include a handful of curious but largely unexceptional guest-star turns, and the release’s shortcomings are fiercely underscored by an excessive running time.

Along with Otis Rush and Magic Sam, Buddy Guy is the third point in the architectural triangle that defines the Chicago Blues’ West Side Sound. Coming into its biggest prominence during the 1960s, the West Side Sound was a strain of the Windy City form developed by a young and hungry generation of musicians deeply influenced by the stylistic trailblazers of their locale, but with the rural-to-urban transference that plays such a huge role in defining the Chi-town electric blues distinctively and occasionally drastically modernized.

After making the move to Chicago from Louisiana, Guy got his recording start in 1958 for Cobra Records, the short-lived but vital imprint of Eli Toscano, notably the same place Rush and Sam scored their recording debuts. A large part of Cobra’s artistic success came down to the talents of Willie Dixon as musical director, the man having temporarily left the employ of the Chess Brothers due to issues apparently both monetary and musical.

And Cobra hitting big on the R&B chart with Rush’s monster of a single “I Can’t Quit You Baby” briefly found the label giving Chess’ stranglehold on the Chicago Blues market a real run for its money. But while the shadowy Toscano was a budding entrepreneur and blues fan he was also a gambling addict, and the label shut down operations in 1959, though not before releasing two very fine singles credited to Buddy Guy and His Band on Cobra’s adjunct imprint Artistic.

As basically Cobra’s house bass player, Dixon appears on both, with Guy’s first single featuring Rush on additional guitar and the second finding Ike Turner in the same role and Jackie “Rocket 88” Brenston on saxophone. After Cobra’s demise, Dixon returned to Chess to further great success, bringing Rush and Guy along with him, though neither guitarist found a happy home with the label.

The situation was particularly troublesome for Guy, the purveyor of a personal style the Chess Brothers quickly derided as a noisy racket. In some ways this might seem like simple aural blindness on the part of Phil and Leonard, but it should be noted that the West Side Sound was a development tangibly more frantic and yet urbane than the earlier “down-home” approach the siblings Chess greatly preferred. And yet this didn’t stop them from using Guy as a frequent sideman while attempting to adapt his gifts in wildly disparate stylistic situations in the desire to find a successful hit formula.

For years the results of these sessions were quite difficult to find, but in 1992 MCA rounded them up in a two CD set The Complete Chess Studio Recordings. Since then, responses to this package have reliably focused on the emerging momentum of Guy’s artistry in near constant battle with the Chess’ misuse/abuse of it. That’s not an inapt way of hearing the situation, but it does undercut things considerably, for amongst the R&B instrumentals and teen dance-craze jabs can be found some uncut chunks of the pure West Side oomph yet to come.

Guy’s best moment for Chess is probably the Blues from “Big Bill’s” Copa Cabana LP (originally titled Folk Festival of the Blues.) It documents a downright cracking live-revue styled show, Guy’s worthy band providing the backing for such giants as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Sonny Boy Williamson, with Buddy given two snappy spotlights of his own. He even gets to open the whole thing on a song sung in tandem with Waters and Dixon.

Also worth mentioning is Guy’s acoustic playing on Waters’ very nifty Folk Singer album, but by ’68 when his Left My Blues in San Francisco LP was issued by Chess, his tenure with the company was over. Actually, his responsibilities to the label were done a bit before that, though Guy didn’t know it. That’s why he’s credited under the pseudonym Friendly Chap (get it?) on the initial pressings of harp man Junior Wells’ still astounding 1965 record for the Delmark imprint Hoodoo Man Blues. One of the ‘60s great blues releases, it’s perfect for those looking for an entry point into the work of Buddy Guy.

Unstrapped from Chess’ slow demise Guy became something of a force on the recording front; in ‘67-‘68 alone he knocked out three LPs for Vanguard. In terms of the trajectory of his subsequent career, perhaps the most interesting of these discs is the rec This is Buddy Guy! That slab finds him navigating a live set deeply informed by the then current gusts of R&B/soul (a tightly-wound Stax-esque horn section is essential to the album’s heft) along with Guy’s impressive string tone and his ever evolving approach to showmanship (maybe best summed up by his legendary 100 feet of guitar cord.)

But strangely, by the end of the decade Guy was considered by many to be past his prime. This isn’t really borne out by the evidence, for his appearance in the curio rock-doc Festival Express (which tells the story of a music fest that traveled across Canada by train in 1970) finds him in strong form delivering an inspired take on “Money (That’s What I Want).” But probably the most revelatory aspect of that clip comes through how it succinctly illustrates Guy actively attempting to avoid the secondary status he’d been given in relation to his blues-rock contemporaries.

For one of the first informational tidbits related on the subject of Buddy Guy is his profound influence on a score of rock guitarists, a list that includes but is not limited to Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. This isn’t any kind of exaggeration; the impact of the West Side Sound on the debut LP by John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers is a profound one, and the intense respect Clapton pays to Guy’s guiding example is clearly revealed in a side-by-side comparison of their work.

However, a major theme in Guy’s career has been the urge to erase his persistent standing as an influence to instead stand beside his more famous cohorts as a true equal. And that’s not a far-fetched scenario either; as stated, the relationship between the West Side crew and the blues-rock crowd wasn’t one of fathers (Muddy and the Wolf) and sons (Yardbirds, Stones et al) but instead much closer to a brotherly situation.

To his credit, Clapton did his part by producing a LP for Guy and Wells that Atlantic put out in ’72. While Playing the Blues is a solid LP, I’ve unfortunately never been able to work up all that much enthusiasm for it. Hoodoo Man Blues was recorded on the extreme cheap by a local label (that’s notably still with us today), and the result was sublime.

Even with (or perhaps due to) the assistance of Clapton, Ahmet Ertegun and Tom Dowd, the palpable ambitions of this reunion on wax never felt fully realized or even kicked up much of the dust of which the pair were surely capable, perhaps due to problems with the sessions (the LP was recorded over the span of two years). However, Playing the Blues just might be the best record Guy put out in the ‘70s, a tough decade for the guitarist and the blues in general.

The ‘80s found Guy making a comeback through sheer determination, and his 1981 LP Stone Crazy!, released in the US via sturdy Chicago-based blues indie Alligator, was a constant in the era’s record store racks. Spitting out guitar shrapnel and singing with a deep, soulful intensity, Guy was matched across six songs by a band of true heavyweights engaged not in timid support but loose, often scorching blues invention (for one, drummer Fred Below is in tiptop form.) Guy released a whole lot of subsequent LPs as the decade progressed, but it was hard not to keep coming back to the rewards of Stone Crazy!

If the ‘80s found Guy making a comeback, the ‘90s served as the era of his vindication, the bluesman winning multiple Grammy Awards and landing a fruitful relationship with the Silvertone label that continues right up to Rhythm & Blues. His stylistically varied albums have flowed like water over the last twenty years, and if the results have been a mixed bag, the one constant is that Buddy Guy always shows up to play with his ability undiminished.

And that’s the case with Rhythm & Blues. On the first disc’s opener “Best in Town,” the lyrics of which serve as a career/life summary for Guy, his voice and especially his guitar are immediately in fine form, and he continues thus across the double LP’s 21 tracks. The problem that nags as this maximal product unwinds comes through the bands assembled by producer and drummer Tom Hambridge.

The music they provide for Guy is more than competent, and with the Muscle Shoals Horns in attendance, how could it not be? But with a few all too brief exceptions, it’s mainly engaged as backing, hardly interacting with and pushing Guy’s expressiveness as evidenced on his best work. As a result, the guitarist just steps up and throws down some solos that positively drip with pedal-shredding abandon, as is the case on “Best in Town.”

The next track “Justifyin’” shows the scope of Guy and Hambridge’s ambitions for Rhythm & Blues (the producer co-penning all but three of the songs here.) The song is a soul-rock stomp, glitzed-out with copious contempo trimmings, and if I’d heard it blind, I’d likely never guessed that Guy was involved. That might’ve been the intention, but underneath the backup singers, Hammond B3 swells and precision playing, the tune is simply no great shakes. At less than three and a half minutes, it still becomes an ample showcase in Guy transcending his surroundings through strong singing and wailing guitar.

“I Go by Feel” slows things down for a sound akin to B.B. King or even Bobby “Blue” Bland. I’ll confess that soul-blues of this sort has never been a great tickler of my ear, with the impulse for smoothness an underwhelming replacement for the music’s grit and friction, but this track isn’t overly sophisto, the toughness of the guitar and sturdy emotion in Guy’s voice helping it to overcome the studio polish of the backing, the cut going down pretty easy.

And the situation described on the above three tracks is an apt assessment of what transpires across both discs of Rhythm & Blues, the first basically more soul inclined and the second more in keeping with the Chicago stuff that Guy cut his teeth on, though the lines are sometimes blurred. Across this overabundance the leader packs a sometimes mighty wallop, but the sheer length of this endeavor even manages to weaken the effectiveness of the record’s one unimpeachably positive aspect, the skill of the man whose name is on the cover.

That leaves those guest spots to consider. Kid Rock lends the release its first in a duet on Wells’ classic “Messin’ with the Kid.” On paper, that might seem like a horrendous idea. Actually, on paper it most definitely is a horrendous idea. But while the arrangement, which follows the souped-up version found on Playing the Blues, is a tad too busy and the backup singers bothersome, in execution it could’ve been a helluva lot worse.

And I’ll admit that outside of two songs, I’ve had no substantial interactions with the oeuvre of Kid Rock, so for these ears the dude whose growling alternates with Guy’s could’ve just as easily been the janitor at Blackbird Studios. I’ve also had limited exposure to Keith Urban, but extended knowledge of the Aussie pop-country star’s background isn’t really required to adequately soak up the detour into mainstream mildness that is “One Day Away.”

Their union is polite enough that it could fit into any contempo pop radio format without a hitch, but the chances of that actually happening are slim, and while the result pushes Guy into a very unexpected place, the curiosity doesn’t really inspire a jones for repeated listening.

The albums vocalist Beth Hart has made with guitarist Joe Bonamassa have also escaped my ear, but the collaboration would seem to indicate a more sensible union with the talents of Guy. And frankly, Hart’s appearance on “What You Gonna Do about Me” is a better fit than either Urban or Kid Rock. But sadly the collaboration never ignites, the band just trucking along behind them while the duo trade off vocal lines that are assured but never much more.

“Evil Twin,” featuring Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, and Brad Whitford from Aerosmith is the best of the guest spot bunch. As track three on the second disc, it’s a straight-up (though not especially deep) blues, and both Perry and Whitford’s assload of hard rock derived licks are a good match for Guy. Sparks do fly, if only briefly.

But maybe the most interesting aspect of the song comes through hearing Guy’s voice easily outmatch Tyler’s. On one side is controlled grace, and on the other is strained bluster. And the same discrepancy arises on the Gary Clark Jr. showcase “Blues Don’t Care,” though in this case the guest singing is solid and likeable in a student hanging with a master sort of way.

There will undoubtedly be those who’ll instantly dismiss this review as deriving from a purist sensibility, but the substantially fried heaviness of Guy’s guitar tone, honestly quite far from any blues stick-in-the-mud’s supper, is easily the best thing about Rhythm & Blues. Overall, this set’s second disc outshines the first, mainly because it’s closer to what the singer-guitarist does best. In terms of Guy’s aims for blues-rock supremacy, I’d even call the whole thing a success.

But fifteen freaking people were involved in the engineering of Rhythm and Blues. That’s a far cry from Hoodoo Man Blues or Stone Crazy!, two records that blow this one off the map. And again, the bands here basically just serve Guy; hardly ever do they enter into a dialogue with him. The seeming intent of this 2LP is to spotlight Guy as an artist of astounding versatility and power, which he certainly is, but that was screamingly apparent back in his Chess days when he whipped off an exquisite cover of Bobby Timmons’ jazz staple “Moanin’.”

As a platform for Guy’s desires for blues-rock kingship, this release can accurately be called a success. And as it played numerous times in service of this assessment I was often unsurprisingly very impressed by Guy, at times amused by the brassiness of the whole deal, and if occasionally bothered by the length, was never bored. But with this consideration now complete, I highly doubt I’ll ever listen to Rhythm & Blues again.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C

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