In today’s music landscape, the blues is both everywhere and nowhere—well, almost nowhere. Strains of what is arguably America’s most consequential contribution to world music can be found in places both obvious (rhythm and blues, rock, country) and not so obvious (hip-hop, electronic dance music).
But the rolls of honest-to-goodness bluesmen and blueswomen are slim, and thin each year.
In 2015, B.B. King, 89, and Wendell Holmes, 71, both passed. 2016 claimed Prince, 57, and Maurice White, 74, whose respective repertoires were offshoots of roots that trace back to the Delta. Come 2017, two of the greats who paved the way from the blues to rock n’ roll—Chuck Berry, 90, and Fats Domino, 89—went knocking on heaven’s door.
Those losses have hardly been attended by the requisite replenishing of their ranks. Guitarists from John Mayer to Gary Clark Jr., Son Little to Dan Auerbach, Derek Trucks to Jack White have done their part to fill the void. But even their extraordinary efforts and talents have only done so much to keep the music alive, to make sure the blues has its own story to tell beyond the inheritance it has left to its musical descendants.
Which makes what happened at the Novo in downtown Los Angeles on a pleasant mid-March night not only revelatory in its own right, but vital to the very existence of the blues.
That was evident as soon as Buddy Guy strolled onstage on Sunday night. The 81-year-old patriarch of Chicago blues bypassed opening pleasantries and dove straight into a ripping solo to triumphantly declare “Damn Right, I Got The Blues.”
“If you don’t like the blues,” he told the audience at the 2,300-seat theater, “you shouldn’t have called me.”
Nobody there seemed anything less than thrilled to see Buddy in all his rocking, raunchy, age-defying glory. The whole front section stood and cooed through “Hoochie Coochie Man,” egged on by (and egging on) Guy’s erotic embrace of his guitar. Their support had Buddy blustering after “She’s Nineteen Years Old,” like a sailor fresh off the boat, “Y’all gonna make me play all fucking night. I don’t care.”
Granted, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows between the octogenarian and his adoring fans. When the crowd flubbed the lyrics to “Hoochie Coochie Man”, he let them know about it, with plenty of profanity as well as praise…for an audience in Tokyo that knew the words better.
By and large, though, Buddy was there to give attendees young and old more than a taste of America’s musical foundations. He painted a portrait of a musical Renaissance Man whose career carried him from the Bayou to the Windy City and on to every other place where music is treasured.
With a hat that read “Buddy Guy, Our Friend For Life” and the initials “BG” glimmering from his guitar strap, he regaled a receptive audience with tales told with both his tunes and his words. He sang of what it was like going back to Louisiana on “That’s My Home”, shared his mother’s wisdom that physical beauty is only “Skin Deep”, and flashed back to recording with Chicago blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson before bounding into “Who’s Making Love”. He shared stories of playing at a Stanford fraternity in the 1960s, where he wasn’t paid but was appreciative to have been offered a place to stay, and of bringing his Muddy Waters record to school in hopes of scoring music lessons.
But Buddy didn’t stay stuck in his own past. He shared his interpretations of where the blues went, from its blossoming with John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom” and King’s “Sweet 16” to subsequent distillations through the Rolling Stone’s “Satisfaction,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” and Cream’s “Strange Brew.”
He also acknowledged, both explicitly and implicitly, how changing attitudes in the wider world had altered his own. He credited the rise of hip-hop for his frequent cursing, and gave a nod to the #MeToo movement when, before some particularly edgy tunes (including Johnnie Taylor’s “Cheaper to Keep Her”), he reminded all within earshot that “I didn’t write these fucking songs. I’m just playing them.”
Throughout a raucous romp that raged well past the designated 10:30 p.m. stop time, he channeled guitar savants from Hendrix to Tom Morello in showing off all the different ways to play. He plucked his string with a drumstick and strummed with a towel during a rendition of Little Milton’s “Grits Ain’t Groceries,” used his teeth to find tones during his brief ode to Jimi and rubbed the frets across his rear end while turning out his version of “Sunshine Of Your Love.”
His most important work, though, wasn’t entirely what he did on stage. Buddy played his own classic, “Someone Else Is Steppin’ In,” while slipping out to the audience. He shuffled all the way to the bar on the opposite end of the venue, where revelers could experience his artistry up close, before circling back around to the front of the house.
Along the way, he found a friend in the crowd: a seven-year-old named Quinn, who came equipped with his own guitar. Buddy invited Quinn onto the stage, where he showed the kid some tricks as they played Stevie Ray Vaughan’s standard “Pride and Joy.” “Whatever stage you be on from now on,” Buddy told Quinn, “put it on.”
That same advice applied just as well to Buddy’s opener, Brandy Zdan. The Canadian rocker interrupted a run of her own plucky punk-ish songs, among them “More of a Man Than Me” and “I Want Your Trouble,” to show off her own eight-bar blues prowess with a riveting interpretation of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.”
In truth, Buddy’s message was one for the masses, the youth included. He won’t be around forever to captivate and inspire on behalf of the blues. Someday, he will go the way of so many of his contemporaries. The blues can survive on the brilliant efforts of the genre’s current, aforementioned heirs. But for the blues to thrive, to find renewed life in forms of music that have yet to be invented, its proprietors must extend a wider, deeper reach across times and places and generations. It’s a commendable, perhaps necessary effort that Buddy began when he moved from Baton Rouge to Chicago in 1957 and has continued in the six decades since then. With any luck, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer will find, if not forge, more than a few musical scions before his playing days are done, to ensure that the thread shared by seemingly all American music still has a distinguishable presence within the planet’s ever-expanding sonic tapestry.
Check out the gallery below, courtesy of photographer Brandon Weil.