My favorite Buddy Guy story goes back a few years.
It unfolded over Labor Day weekend of 1990 in downtown Louisville. This was long before the days of Forecastle, when the top outdoor festival was the Louisville American Musicfest, a multi-genre outgrowth of an annual bluegrass event the city had hosted for well over a decade. The gathering went heavy on blues and roots driven music presented on multiple stages near Main St. Performers included Joe Ely, Lonnie Brooks and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.
Over at the Belvedere, the Austin Lounge Lizards had just completed a late Saturday afternoon set of renegade bluegrass when a shout came from the main concert stage located outside the Kentucky Center for the Arts. The voice, even from a distance, possessed the vigor and almost spiritual command of rural preacher. This was the message it conveyed.
“If you don’t like the blues, then ya’ll just get on out of here.”
The star of the evening had arrived. Buddy Guy was onstage.
Guy’s career renaissance – specifically, the popularity incurred by a career redefining record titled Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues – was still a year away. Still, a new blues generation had already flocked to the rockish potency of his playing, partly through the very vocal support of Stevie Ray Vaughan. The Texas guitarist spent much of the previous decade telling any fan and critic who would listen what a mentoring influence Guy had been on his playing.
But the blues world was also in mourning at the time. Vaughan had perished in a horrific helicopter crash less than a month earlier. Nearly every performer that day in Louisville offered words of appreciation in his honor. Guy told the crowd he was dedicating “every show I’ll ever do” to his late disciple.
That’s when the sadness stopped. Maybe it was partly the testimony he had given in Vaughan’s honor. A likelier guess, though, was that Guy simply shifted into the gospel-like fervor and jackhammer musical intensity he lends to every performance. The show, almost with the flick of a switch, became a celebration.
That’s when things really got fun. About half-way through Sweet Home Chicago, the chestnut that doubled as an ode to the blues Mecca that has served as home for nearly all of Guy’s professional career, the guitarist left the stage, walked through the crowd and up the steps of the Center for the Arts to peer through the huge windows that enclosed the Bristol, a restaurant then situated on venue’s first floor. The crowd fell in behind him. He kept on playing guitar every step of the way.
One could only imagine the reaction of Bristol diners seated by the window as they glanced outside to see an African-American with a guitar, an electric smile the size of Texas and an audience army of about 500 patrons heading straight towards them.
How beautifully indicative the scenario was, though, of Guy’s performance demeanor. It was a setting initially beset by the loss of a musical hero but remedied with an almighty dose of the blues.
“I was never the type of artist who was so good that I could just stand there and sing like B.B. King or Eric Clapton,” Guy said in the DVD documentary My Time After Awhile, which is included in the 2006 box set retrospective Can’t Quit the Blues. “Plus, I’m from a Baptist family. In the Baptist church, when they feel good, they let you know it. I think that’s what people see in me when I play.”
Today, Guy is probably the most recognized living ambassador of the blues outside of B.B. King. Born into a Louisiana sharecropping family, he gained an early appreciation for the music’s Southern roots.
He has claimed John Lee Hooker’s Boogie Chillen was the first song he learned how to play. But it was upon moving to Chicago in 1957, where a young Guy eventually fell in with a blues contingency that featured innovators like Muddy Waters, Otis Rush and soon-to-be performance partner Junior Wells, that he became fascinated by the music’s electric possibilities.
Guy was also a reactionary. Tradition was great, but he remained in tune with the wave of British artists that amped up Chicago blues styles in a way that became popular with young America. That seemed to provide license to unleash a level of volume, intensity and pure vigor in Guy’s playing that had been kept almost purposely under wraps. While signed to Chicago’s landmark Chess label during the ‘60s, he recorded largely as a support musician for other artists. The rockish undertow of Guy’s music didn’t fit in with what label chieftain Leonard Chess envisioned for his organization. Guy wound up issuing only one album as a leader for the label, 1967’s heavily R&B-inspired Left My Blues in San Francisco, before moving on.
In the decades that followed, Guy became a hero to a new blues audience. He jammed with the likes of Eric Clapton, shared stages with the Rolling Stones and received induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and, as recently as last December, the Kennedy Center Honors. He even managed to convince President Obama to sing a verse of Sweet Home Chicago during a White House performance the preceding February.
Guy continues to tour heavily (he performed in Brazil earlier this month) and will release a new recording called Rhythm and Blues – a double-disc set featuring cameos by Gary Clark Jr, Keith Urban, Kid Rock and members of Aerosmith, on July 30 – his 77th birthday.
“Funny thing about the blues,” Guy wrote in his 2012 autobiography, When I Left Home. “You play ‘em cause you got ‘em. But when you play ‘em, you lose’em. If you hear ‘em – if you let the music get into your soul – you also lose ‘em. The blues chase the blues away. The true blues feeling is so strong that you forget everything else – even your own blues.”
Buddy Guy performs at 7:30 tonight at the Lexington Opera House. The concert is sold out.