August 10, 2012
Into the blues or not, it was impossible not to look forward to the crossroads on the road summit of Buddy Guy and Jonny Lang – two giant slingers for the ages. Myself, I’ll get me some 8/12-bars all night long from just about anybody, let alone these guys. Seriously, I was raised as far from the blues as a Westwood kid could get, yet the in your bones familiarity and launchpad of guitar heroes past, present and future intoxicated me early on. Blame Clapton. Blame Hendrix. Blame Duane Allman. The roots of my personal soundtrack lie in the blues and blues driven rock. Few musical idioms are as simple, fundamental and elemental. And in this day of economic hardship and digital overload, the blues have never been more important.
The setup of Lang, the original teenage blues phenom (now 31-year old father of three) with Buddy Guy, the elder Chicago blues king, could not be passed up. The Fargo born Lang was signed to A&M at 15 and “Lie to Me”, the first of his four studio albums was released in 1997 (his most recent effort is 2009’s “Live at the Ryman”). These two actually crossed paths earlier in Lang’s career with his appearance on Guy’s 1998 “Heavy Love” release. No surprise Lang has toured with the likes of the Stones, Aerosmith, B.B. King, Jeff Beck and Sting, and that Clapton tapped him for the first Crossroads Guitar Festival (2004). Buddy Guy, 45 years Lang’s senior, started performing in early 50s Baton Rouge and he’s never stopped. His discography on Chess, Vanguard, Alligator, Reprise, Atlantic, MCA and many others, spans a lifetime, and he is a six-time Grammy winner. To put it simply, Clapton once described Guy as “the best guitarist alive”. The list of worshipful guitar legends Guy has influenced is pure hall of fame. I was only hoping that this performance would be a master class in 6-string heartache and rags-to-riches showmanship that come with the territory.
While I am less familiar with Jonny Lang’s material, he connected with the OC crowd early. Beginning with more brooding tunes including “Turnaround” from the 2006 album of the same name, Lang took to either side of the stage as he dug into solos with a fleshy, perfectly baked tone delivered from a gorgeous Les Paul and especially his Tele Thinline Deluxe (Tab Benoit is another notable blues artists favoring the Thinline). By the time he hit “Red Light” from 2003’s “Long Time Coming”, the audience swooned a bit as he reached for quieter falsettos between a Marley-esque sing along of “everything’s gonna be alright”. Not exactly steeped in the delta, but a solid showcase for Lang’s musical and vocal range. A too short cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” was a terrific match for Lang’s strengths and the crowd really responded to the gospelly “That Great Day” from “Turnaround”. A thomping intro to “Angel of Mercy” from 1998’s “Wander this World” found Lang facing off with guitarist Akil Thompson’s hollow-body Gibson for some of Lang’s nastiest soloing of the set. Lang closed things out with a solo acoustic intro to “Lie to Me’” from his 1997 debut album of the same name, that grew to full band drama on a tune that had an “everyone’s been there” feel to it. A blues that anybody knows well.
As Buddy Guy strode to the stage with a huge smile and a signature polka dot Strat (blue with white dots, to be exact), he took a healthy moment to pause and respect the crowd. While it would be easy to trade on his legend, the man takes nothing for granted. He then jumped into the Leon Russell penned/Freddie King associated “Going Down”, a propulsive early 70s tune made a little more famous by Jeff Beck. Guy advised us that we were going to get “so funky, we could smell it” before taking “Hoochie Coochie Man” from a quiet rumble to a roar. He roamed the stage, even going off-mike to create living room intimacy, then fired away with guitarist Ric Hall in a sizzling exchange of solos. Between songs, Guy jokingly (or not) confessed he “don’t rehearse, or I’ll fuck it up”. Believe me, he didn’t. The key no longer fit the lock with the cheatin’ blues of “Someone Else Is Slippin’ In”, from his 1994 release “Slippin’ In, after which Guy noted “you don’t hear blues on the radio anymore”. A sharecropper’s son who didn’t have running water until he was 17 would know.
“If you don’t try and please the fans, go home”, Buddy Guy remembers telling some fellow musicians. It’s so obviously true. “76 Years Young” (updated from “74 Years Young” from 2010’s, “Living Proof”) was a highlight, and not just for the humor of the autobiographical intro. With lines like “I’ve been a dog and I’ve been a tomcat, I chased some tails and I left some tracks”, this is a man who’s lived every word. Guy’s vocals showed off a warm spot-on vibrato on the 1956 Little Willie John classic “Fever”. Then it was time to plunge into the crowd with an Albert King tribute (and this ain’t no mosh pit). Guy took his time entering from one side, leaving from another, moving from the front of the room to the back. Allowing fans to take a picture with him, laughing and smiling the whole way, all the while shredding up a storm and seamlessly staying connected with the band. Yeah, I think the fans were pretty happy.
When Buddy Guy steps aside for another slinger, you know the player’s special. When the guitarist is 13-year old (barely) Quinn Sullivan, it’s jaw dropping. Guy first played with Sullivan when he was 7 (“I thought it was me playing”). Try and process that. Sullivan confidently took his spot and sparked up a gorgeous Strat for his own “Blues Child” from his 2011 debut “Cyclone”. That Guy compared his playing and sound to Clapton is not to off the mark (and I can’t believe I just wrote that). Sullivan stuck around for “Buddy’s Blues”, also from “Cyclone”. “The whole world turned upside down, when I first heard the master Buddy Guy”, Sullivan growled as deep as his teenage pipes could reach. Well put, Quinn. Jonny Lang had to be smiling off stage. Perhaps what’s most powerful about this collaboration is the legacy of the blues that transcends generations. Where a 13-year old with the world ahead of him can meet up with a 76-year old master on equal footing. Wow.
Guy’s set concluded with his popular take on John Hiatt’s “Feels Like Rain” from his 2007 album of the same name, and a loose cover of Cream/Clapton’s vintage blues “Strange Brew”. “Feels Like Rain” was a crowd pleaser that resonated well with the Grove audience. Lang and Sullivan joined Guy for “Strange Brew”, which could have had more spark given the lineup, but was hardly a disappointment.
Buddy Guy’s generous spirit was on display to the very end. High 5-ing and signing autographs as he left the stage. A shout out to Guy’s band is also called for. The rhythm section of bassist Orlando Wright and drummer Tim Austin, Marty Sammon’s keys and Ric Hall on guitar were far more than predictable accompanists, they were a soulful unit that played as a very tight band.
I came to the show to bask in the notes of a blues legend. Check. That Buddy Guy spun stories like I was on the bar stool next to him was just as meaningful. This was a night of blues as uplift, warmth and connection. Not the dark stuff. Damn right, they got the blues and ain’t we the lucky ones. Don’t ever forget that.