By Steve Hochman
Seems like this guitar is the only place I find the truth.
So sings Buddy Guy on “All That Makes Me Happy Is the Blues,” one of the many highlights of the more-or-less autobiographical journey that is his new double-disc album, Rhythm and Blues (due out July 30).
The guitar in question is his trusty Buddy Guy ’89 Fender Custom Strat, the black with white polka-dots camouflaged by his matching shirt, his long-time sartorial trademark, as seen on the album cover photo, giving the impression that the axe is part of his body. As it pretty much is.
The sounds he gets from it are also an extension of his persona, the unmistakable sting n’ sing of his leads that, more than anything else, mark these 21 songs. More than any genre labels. More than any guest stars, and there are a bunch: Kid Rock; Keith Urban; Beth Hart; Aerosmith’s Steve Tyler, Joe Perry and Brad Whitford and young Texas hotshot Gary Clark Jr. It’s the thread through his career, from his classic, innovative recordings with blues harp maestro Junior Wells through stadium bills with the Rolling Stones through a couple of post-Millennial albums taking him back to his Delta roots.
The guitar is also in this case a bridge. It’s the and in Rhythm and Blues. It’s the link between his youth in Lettsworth, La. — the heart of the Mississippi Delta — and the South Side of Chicago, where he came under the sway of Muddy Waters and helped shape the modern blues guitar alongside the likes of Magic Sam and Otis Rush. And it’s a bridge he crosses, in both directions, throughout this set.
Working with producer/co-writer/drummer Tom Hambridge and a solid core band with a variety of supplemental players, Guy gives a forceful, vivid and highly personal (and personable) run through not just his own life but a half-century-plus of the sounds of Chicago, some of the most compelling music of the modern era.
In the larger sense, it’s a recognition that all three realms of major modern popular music took shape at crossroads: Rock and roll. Country and western. Rhythm and blues. Guy pointedly divides his pair on this ambitious set. Disc one is Rhythm. Disc two is Blues. Not that the difference is always so clear, which may also be part of the point.
The Rhythm disc starts with the guitarist down in Louisiana in the autobiographical prologue “Best in Town,” a concise summary of his life’s journey centering on the advice from his father that he carried north with him — you don’t have to be the best, but be the best “until the best comes around.” And Blues kicks off with “Meet Me In Chicago” (co-written by Hambridge and steel guitar wizard Robert Randolph, though surprisingly he doesn’t play on it), a raucous tour of the South Side with screaming guitar lines — hardly a slice of Delta down-home.
The first disc has more horns (the famed Muscle Shoals crew); the second is a little leaner in the arrangements and introspective in tone (satisfied with “I Could Die Happy” and “My Mama Loved Me,” dark with “I Came Up Hard”). But there are exceptions on both — the little contrasting dots that give the full meaning to yin and yang, and the clear message that this is to be taken as a whole, not merely as constituent parts. As nostalgic as some of it may be, there’s a right-now immediacy to it all, bought even more into relief by each side having a couple of dips into the past. The first disc’s crisp run on “Well I Done Got Over It” (written and recorded by Guitar Slim, a.k.a. Eddie Jones, in 1953 and many others since) both complements and informs such songs as the Guy-Hambridge composition “Devil’s Daughter,” building on the showy flash that’s long been a Guy signature.
Yes, flash is what he’s known for as a guitar player, making the most of that star Strat of his. But that, too, is here intensified by a simultaneous, perhaps contradictory succinctness to his lines. Another yin and yang in his polka dots.
Arguably, it’s the guest turns that seem least essential to the tale. Kid Rock’s presence on Junior Wells’ 1960 hit “Messin’ With the Kid” seems more to do with the wink of the nickname/title confluence than it being the right song for the singer. (The original version, by the way, did not feature Guy, though he and Wells re-recorded it together in ’66 and it remained a standard of their repertoire together and apart.) Urban and the three Aerosmithians are clearly having a blast with Guy on, respectively, the churning “One Day Away” and the hard-charging “Evil Twin,” but neither is among the album’s standouts. Even the bombastic Clark seems superfluous on “Blues Don’t Care.” The exception is Hart on “What You Gonna Do About Me,” her smoldering growl bumping into Tina Turner/Bettye LaVette territory and parrying both with Guy’s vocals and liquid guitar and the blaring Muscle Shoals Horns.
The album ends firmly in the Windy City with “Poison Ivy,” a 1954 hit by the city’s Willie Mabon and one of several songs on which he mixes it up by playing an older Fender Strat. Guy and band do the song in classic jump-blues style, with horns-a-blowin’ and piano-a-rollin’… urban and urbane. And full circle, back to the bridge of rhythm and blues, back when it was just being built.
That’s a good place to picture Guy, celebrating his 77th birthday at the end of this month, as he closes out the self-explanatory song “Never Gonna Change” with an offhanded aside: “Same ol’ Buddy Guy.”
And… that’s the truth.