Buddy Guy has mellowed, but in a way that is still pure Buddy Guy.
By the time the 85-year-old legend departed the stage at Horseshoe Casino’s Bluesville near Tunica, Mississippi last Saturday evening, he had left no doubt that his voice remains as strong and distinctive as ever. He dropped some f-bombs and took occasional breaks for a sip of Cognac. With a few brief flourishes, he proved that he can still channel the ferocity he possessed in his younger days, the same power that continues to inspire generations of blues and rock musicians.
On this night, however, Buddy Guy was all about payback. Yet it wasn’t payback with vengeance. It was respectful payback meant to stoke the memories of the Delta Blues artists whose songs are very likely the original inspiration for your own favorite popular music, no matter what you plan to stream today.
He also expressed his genuine appreciation for the British musicians and bands – notably the Rolling Stones and Cream – who absorbed Delta Blues into their own musical styles and then exported it back to its original home, the United States, to an audience largely ignorant of its roots. Midway through the show, Guy told the story about how the Rolling Stones refused to perform on the ABC-TV variety show Shindig! unless the producers also booked Muddy Waters. The producers apparently didn’t know who Muddy Waters was, never mind that the Rolling Stones named their band after one of Waters’ songs.
Guy’s passion has not waned, but now it derives from the arcs of history and musical legacy rather than from the intense power of the moment.
The Timeless Music of the Delta
The night’s first song – “Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues,” the title track from his Grammy-winning 1991 album – foreshadowed the litany of classic songs that followed, songs that touched on the emotions, sexual tension, mystical figures, and anti-heroes that have driven rock, R&B, and pop songs for decades. But they all draw lyrically, rhythmically, and structurally from songs from the Delta Region.
Don’t let the time stamps on the songs mentioned below fool you. In the talented hands of Buddy Guy and his band, Saturday night’s history lesson was never dull and often spellbinding. Let’s start with the hard-working blue-collar man who gets his heart ripped out. Guy took the audience back to 1952, when Eddie Boyd first asked “Have you ever been mistreated?” in the song “Five Long Years”.
Next came “I’m a King Bee”, which is a song from the Rolling Stones’ 1964 debut album, right? Well, the original version dates to Slim Harpo in 1957. Then came two more songs that must mean a lot to Guy personally. The band played “Hoochie Coochie Man”, a breakthrough song written by Willie Dixon and recorded by Muddy Waters in 1954. Fans of Bo Diddley and George Thorogood would recognize the legacy of that song immediately. Guy followed “Hoochie Coochie Man” with a slow, stirring version of “Hoodoo Man Blues”, written and recorded in 1965 by his longtime collaborator Junior Wells.
In the next phase of the show, the band fused the timeless Delta themes to some songs more familiar to a classic rock audience. Guy thanked his good friend Eric Clapton, who once formed Cream together with bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker. Guy and his band launched into a haunting rendition of Cream’s “Strange Brew” which included a fantastic solo by keyboard player Marty Sammon. Throughout the evening, Guy encouraged the audience to sing along, though it took several takes for the crowd to sing to his full satisfaction on “Strange Brew.”
He then combined some of his traditional live theatrics – such as playing the guitar with a drum stick – with flourishes of Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” and Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love”. Sandwiched in between those songs was “Skin Deep”, the title track from Guy’s 2008 album. The harmonies of Guy, Sammon, and drummer Tom Hambridge on “Skin Deep” were the show’s vocal highlight.
Saturday’s show was Guy’s only appearance in the Mississippi Delta on his current 2021-2022 tour, which resumed only last week after a series of cancellations. But he made that Delta appearance count with the honor roll of artists he covered. Eddie Boyd was born in Stovall, Mississippi, around the same place and time that Muddy Waters was born. Slim Harpo hailed from a small town near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, about an hour away from Guy’s own hometown of Lettsworth. Willie Dixon came from Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Junior Wells was born in the Memphis area.
How do you finish off a tribute like this? Great question, and Guy chose a song that has been covered by a few dozen artists, including some so famous (Beyonce, Madonna, Elvis) that they don’t even need a last name. That song was “Fever”, first recorded in 1956 by Little Willie John. Two years later, Peggy Lee would rework the lyrics slightly and reach the Billboard Top 10 with her own version which earned three nominations at the first-ever Grammy Awards in 1959.
But then there’s more. To fuse old and new one more time and perhaps symbolically pass the torch to the latest star to emerge from the Mississippi Delta Region, Guy invited the night’s opening act, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, to join him onstage for jam session with the band and Guy's son Greg, a guitarist who has been blazing his own blues trail over the last decade.
Keeping the Blues Alive
Guy and his band explored the history of the Delta Blues. His opening act might just define its future, and if that’s true, then blues music will remain in very good hands.
Saturday marked the only time Guy and Kingfish will share a stage for the near future. That made this night a special kind of crossroads … not one where devil meets the star-crossed victim, but one where glorious past meets bright future.
Christone “Kingfish” Ingram dedicated his second album on Alligator Records, entitled 662, to the Delta Region. On that album, he says that he promised Buddy Guy he would keep the blues going, because it is “our history.” Kingfish hails from Clarksdale, Mississippi, and 662 refers to the region’s current area code, implemented in 1999, the same year he was born.
With only around 40 minutes to play as the opening act, Kingfish’s song selection was a perfect sampler that demonstrated his vast guitar range as well as his vocal power. He bookended the six-song set with his “river” songs, starting with “She Calls Me Kingfish” and ending with “662”, the title track from the new album.
As great as he sounds in the studio, he becomes a different Kingfish when he gets on the stage. On Saturday his voice sounded more powerful and edgier, and the rhythm section and keyboards drove with an intensity that occasionally made the venue’s video cameras shake. But what stood out the most was the subtlety and nuance in his guitar playing. At times his guitar sounded like his backup singer or his conversation partner, as he seemed to evoke speech rather than music.
The second song was “Fresh Out” from his Grammy-nominated debut album. It was an appropriate choice, because Buddy Guy was going to record the song before Hambridge convinced him to let Kingfish record it instead. Guy performed on the studio version. He followed that with “Another Life Goes By,” the most serious song on the latest album. Lines such as “We need to pay attention to the helpless cries/We gotta stop the madness before another life goes by”need an unpolished edge in person, and Kingfish delivered.
The party resumed with the fourth song, “That’s What You Do,” an ironic choice because – as the song goes – sometimes you drive for hours just a play a few songs before hitting the road again. But that’s the price you pay to play the blues. The band then segued into “Your Time Is Gonna Come,” a more traditional blues song punctuated by Kingfish’s solos.
Before he roared into “662” as the finale, he took his phone from his amp and snapped a picture of the crowd. During one of his solos, he flipped his baseball cap around and played the guitar with his teeth. Then as “662” reached its last crescendo, he unstrapped his guitar, set it face down onstage, and walked away as the band continued to play.
It was the guitar version of a mic drop. And it worked.
If you have an opportunity to see either Buddy Guy or Kingfish Ingram perform, seize it.
See Buddy Guy’s upcoming tour dates here.
See Kingfish Ingram’s upcoming tour dates here.
Frank Luby is co-founder and CEO of BluesBackroadsBaseball LLC and author of the book "Blues Flashbacks", which features vintage concert reviews or interviews with many Mississippi Delta region artists, including Willie Dixon, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Junior Wells, James Cotton, and Koko Taylor.