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Out of Sight

Buddy Guy still pushes blues boundaries



At 70 years young, Chicago's most famous living bluesman has his reputation deeply rooted and not just by his own history. Beyond his history as a Chess Records recording artist, a sessionman for Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and many others, Buddy Guy's been a guitar hero for Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and the rest of the prime classic rocker gang, a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and a music club owner (of an establishment that bears his name, just like B.B. King). Guy also remains a live performer virtually unmatched in his field.

Like many of his Windy City blues brethren, Buddy Guy was a transplant from the South, starting out as part of a large family on a central Louisiana plantation where segregation was the order of the day. His modest beginnings included not just pumping gas and sweeping up trash but also making his first guitar with a pair of strings, hairpins from his mother and a slab of wood. His original idea to move up to Chicago came about without the notion to start a career but to earn more as a custodian there and check out shows featuring some of his heroes. Once he arrived there, he became much more deeply involved in the music scene.

Even though he earned an impressive reputation for his Chess work, Guy felt that he was restrained there, being ordered to hold back on his guitar work. On Vanguard Records and later Atlantic, Guy furthered his rep, teaming up with harp player Junior Wells and recording with Clapton, the J. Geils Band, Dr. John and Bill Wyman (Rolling Stones).

But Guy's recording career stalled by the early 1980s -- he didn't put out a new album until the early 1990s. At that time, he hooked up with Silvertone Records (part of the Zomba/Jive family of labels) and mounted an impressive comeback, especially with his first '90s album, the well-named Damn Right, I've Got The Blues. Not only did he rack up a trio of Grammy awards but he was also playing larger venues. The new millennium has been good to Guy also: he not only scored another Grammy for 2003's Blues Singer, but he also released the rootsy downhome Sweet Tea (2001), which is one of the finest albums in his entire catalog. Most recently, he issued Bring 'Em In (from 2005, still working with Jive), which was something of a soul summit with covers of Wilson Pickett, Curtis Mayfield, Otis Redding and also features guest appearances from Carlos Santana, Keith Richards and Tracy Chapman.

But alongside Guy's lauded recording career is his impressive live performances. While some have carelessly claimed that he sometimes imitates his followers in the guitar ranks, it's much more sensible to say that he's reclaiming his own ground and maybe even teaching them a lesson or two. Also, if you bear down on the particulars of his performances, his showmanship is almost unparalleled, and not just in the field of the blues.

Consider just two of the stellar performances that he's done. During his Chess years in the 1960s, Guy toured Europe with other blues greats where he was by far the youngest of the star revue, which also included the likes of middle-aged legends like Joe Turner and John Lee Hooker. Guy was actually booed by some crowds not just for his age but also for his aggressive playing and fancy footwork. As witnessed on the DVD The American Folk Blues Festival 1962-1969, Volume 3 (Hip-O), the sharply dressed Guy is seen on a 1965 TV performance doing James Brown's "Out of Sight," with his kinetic playing and slick dance moves looking and sounding like nothing so much as Hendrix would a couple of years after him. No wonder the blues crowds weren't ready for him.

Fast forward 40 years. Guy is playing a free concert in New York City on November 2005 at a 900-seat auditorium near Wall Street. He's no longer sporting his long Jheri curls but now appearing bald and playing side-by-side with special guest John Mayer. Rather than slay the crowd with a constant guitar attack, Guy is economical, juicing his instrument at just the right moments for dramatic effect and sometimes just letting it hang there as he clenches his fists during song verses. Later, he'll prowl around the entire perimeter of the venue, playing the whole time and getting hugs from fans along the way. Decades later, he's still a non-traditional bluesman and you wouldn't want him any other way.

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