Saturday, 5 March 2011

Buddy Guy

Published in Rhythms Magazine, March 2010

Buddy Guy

A few years ago, before I began writing about music, and being wont to wander, I fetched up one winter on Mt. Buller, waiting tables and tending bar at a lodge halfway up the Burke Street slope.  It was here in this alpine setting that I struck up a friendship with local blues guitar maestro, Lloyd Spiegel, who was playing a residency at the Buller Bar, of all places, a tiny dive further up the mountain known only to the locals and the workers, a place to go and get away from the tourist crowds.  Being a blues fan, I was amazed to find someone of Spiegel’s calibre playing so far removed from civilisation, and so spent a good deal of my time off propping up the bar, listening to him go about his musical business, night after night, for months on end.

As a result of the two of us striking up a friendship, he was kind enough to give me a copy of the record he was toting at the time, Live At The Continental, which he signed, ‘Blues is truth, keep the faith’.  That phrase has stuck with me ever since, from coming down off that mountain to getting my foot in the door of music journalism, and as I’ve come to interview more and more blues players, the phrase has become real, something that’s true, because blues is truth, and I’d like to think I’ve kept the faith.  Keeping the faith is something that’s hard to do from a musical standpoint though, particularly in this day and age of plastic pop songs and three and a half minute attention spans, but there’s one artist who’s done it.  Actually, there are probably two – one being the legendary BB King, the other being the equally as talented and dedicated, Buddy Guy.

Later this month, as part of the Bluesfest juggernaught, Guy will come back to Australia once more, a place he’s been touring through since 1972, a place he adds to his touring list every few years, and this is some list – if ever there was someone who kept the faith, who realised blues was the truth, it’s Buddy Guy, still touring hard despite the fact he’s well into his 70s.  “Well actually, BB King, he don’t ever get tired of playing, he plays more dates than I do,” laughs Guy modestly of fellow bluesman King, who incidentally he’s on tour with prior to heading over to Australia.  “And he’s got records I don’t want, because I think sometime in the late 50s, he played 364 days one year, and that’s a record I don’t think I want.

“BB’s been kinda ailing though, with his ankles, so he sits down in the chair and plays and I can understand that cos I think he’s 85 years old this year, and that’s real good to say, ‘I don’t miss no gig’,” he carries on with a chuckle.  “If I live to be 85, I hope I can still do it just like he does.  I don’t know if I’ll keep that many dates though.”  At 74, Guy is certainly doing his best to keep up, and as anyone who’s ever seen him play live will attest, he’s certainly not getting any worse.  Still, Guy is realistic about the situation, knowing he’s a lucky man to be able to get out and do what he wants to do, what he was born to do.  “Well I try my best, I mean, I’m trying to carry on,” he muses.  “If you had been interviewing me when I first came to Australia, we had quite a few more great blues players still around and living then. 

“The late Muddy, Wolf, Walter, all those guys…well, maybe not Walter, but the other guys were still out there, but they’re not anymore, so every time I talk to BB I say, ‘We’ve got to keep it going man, there aren’t many of us left’.”  What Guy says is true – of the blues greats, it’s probably only himself and BB King who are still alive and kicking, who are still out there spreading the word, letting people know firsthand that the blues is truth, and that it’s up to them to keep the faith.  Of course, this is where the three minute attention spans come in, and also where things begin to get a little dark and ominous – for in ten years, or twenty years, what with the music industry the way it is, will blues last that long?  Once Guy and King have gone the way of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, who will carry on the legacy?

“Well, I think the young people have to pick it up and carry it on just like anything,” he reasons.  “Most music these days is just like sport, I mean you have great soccer players or football players and through the colleges and whatever, those sports keep going because people keep coming up, but blues doesn’t have that.  A person has to be with blues just like I was, you have to just love it.  I mean, when I learnt how to play, I didn’t look at no one and say, ‘Woah, I’m gonna be a good guitar player cos one day I can do better than pickin’ cotton on the farm’, just by playin’ the guitar.

“And that’s what frightens me now with the next generation of young people who play blues,” he continues, really getting in to his explanation.  “They don’t look up and say, ‘Wow, maybe I should be like Buddy Guy’.  There are still kids who say, ‘Who the hell is that?’  My grandkids know me as grandad, they don’t know me as a blues player being invited to Australia and every part of the world.”  It’s easy, as a blues fan, to share Guy’s fear – that the younger generation, the generation responsible for ensuring that blues continues to exist as a musical genre, aren’t looking far enough to the past, the place where this music was born.  Of course, in order for the blues to survive, it does have to evolve somewhat, hence players like John Butler and Ben Harper.  But is that enough?

“Well, yeah,” Guy dismisses, obviously not that enamoured with the ‘roots’ movement that was supposedly the new school link to the blues of old.  “If you listen to my last record, Skin Deep (’08), there’s a cut on there called ‘Who’s Gonna Fill Those Shoes’ featuring a young man (Quinn Sullivan) who was at the time only eight years old…I got him up on stage just the other night when I was playing with BB, and he had people standing.  I’m excited, you gotta pay close attention to him because he’s got exactly that thing what we need to get these blues we love so well a big lift.”  Sullivan, who’s now ten years old, is an American guitar prodigy and one look at him playing with Guy on YouTube is enough to realise that yeah, this kid is the one who’s gonna fill those shoes.  “I told him the other night, when I was ten years old, I didn’t even know how to play the radio,” Guy laughs.

“All you can do I guess, is keep your fingers crossed and hope that someday, someone will say, ‘Lets play this music a little more’,” he then shrugs.  It strikes me that Guy doesn’t put much faith in the ‘evolve in order to survive’ ethos toward the blues that a lot of today’s players employ, and given he’s grown up immersed in the purest form of the music, it’s not really that surprising.  There’ll always be someone, somewhere playing the blues like it was played back in the day (and today, courtesy of King, Guy and others), but as he says, they’ve gotta live it, they’ve gotta love it – only time, unfortunately, will tell.

Speaking of time though, and moving to perhaps less worrying topics, 2010 stands as Guy’s 45th year ‘in the business’, almost half a century spent playing the blues, of immersing himself in this oldest of genres, the blueprint, as it were, of so much and so many other forms of music, an achievement matched by very, very few.  “Well, if you listen to the lyrics in the blues, it’s people singing about everyday life,” he ruminates on his love of this music.  “No matter what’s going on in the world, blues is expressed as a joyful noise or a sad noise, we sing about what’s going on…the way the economy is today, people can listen to the blues and go, ‘Oh, I see what they were talking about when they were signing this a hundred years ago’. 

“To me, blues means life, it’s taken me all over the world,” he continues.  “The blues is because I’m speaking to you now…I’ve got a gift, a god given talent that took me from the farm in Louisiana to Australia or Africa, wherever, I’ve been around the world, and that’s a blessing for me.”  Guy, in return, has been a blessing for the blues, and for a lot the blues has created.  With his incendiary use of his instrument, his power and flair, Guy is credited with inspiring the likes of Hendrix, Clapton and Jimmy Page – without Buddy Guy, what would be the state of music today?  I for one, shudder to think.

“Well, you know, I listen to that and it’s a pleasure to hear people speak like that, but I’ve gotta come to Australia, and I can’t come over there and just show off because Hendrix and Clapton and those guys say I can play,” he reasons.  “I’ve gotta come there and play and prove to you or someone who never heard of me that I can play.  And maybe they say, ‘Oh, I see what they meant, I read about it’.  So I gotta carry this little piece with me everywhere I go and say, ‘Well, they spoke good about me, I gotta go and live up to that’.  And that’s what I try to do every time I come there.”

We, as true fans of the music that we so identify Guy with, can hope for no more than that.  As he mentioned earlier in our interview, “My mother and father always told me, don’t ever try to be the best in town, just be the best until the best come around.”  I think it’s fair to say that after almost half a century, having brought the blues into the 21st century, having outlasted all, having shown and proven that blues is truth, and most of all, for having kept the faith, that Buddy Guy is the best that’s come around, and we can certainly hope for no more that that.

Samuel J. Fell

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