BUDDY GUY: A MAN AND THE BLUES (1968)
1) A Man And The Blues; 2) I Can't Quit The Blues; 3) Money (That's What I Want); 4) One Room Country Shack; 5) Mary Had A Little Lamb; 6) Just Playing With My Axe; 7) Sweet Little Angel; 8) Worry, Worry; 9) Jam On A Monday.
What a difference a label change made — Buddy didn't even have to move away from Chicago, because the New York-based Vanguard Records gave him studio time at Universal Studios in his own Chicago stronghold, where he was still able to play with some of the Chess veterans, including, most prominently, pianist Otis Spann, who makes A Man And The Blues as much his own as Buddy's. Some people have claimed not to notice any big difference, but that is not true: the major difference is that, for the first time in more than ten years, Buddy got to make an album — no longer confined to the limitations of the single form — and this has not only allowed him to properly unfurl his talents, but also stimulated him to expand them.
If you think, though, that A Man And The Blues is going to be some ballsy, flashy, I-can-beat-that-Hendrix-sucker affair, think again — with a few minor exceptions, this is a very quiet, low-key recording, concentrating on slow blues guitar/piano interplay rather than cocky blues-rock riffage. One of the minor exceptions is ʽJust Playing With My Axeʼ, which borrows the basic riff of ʽSatisfactionʼ (or, more accurately, the basic guitar/brass riff of ʽSatisfactionʼ as done by Otis Redding) and uses it as a base for some rather chaotic, but clean-sounding jazzy improvisation on Buddy's part — not as if that axe were chopping a whole lot of wood.
Large numbers of generic slow 12-bar blues can be a heavy burden, of course, but the saving grace of the record is Otis — from the opening title track, where Spann and Guy duel with each other for about six minutes, and right down to ʽWorry Worryʼ, where... Spann and Guy also duel with each other for about six minutes, the record is loaded with this exciting piano/guitar dialog, where the possibilities for expression are near endless, and the two men captivate our senses like two genius actors in a never-ending Shakespeare dialog, alternating between lengthy expositions of individual arguments and quick, flashy call-and-response duels (check out especially those brief interchanges in the coda to ʽA Man And The Bluesʼ).
The best of these tracks is probably the soulful cover of Mercy Dee Walton's ʽOne Room Country Shackʼ, a song whose nearest relative in the blues idiom is the well-known ʽBall And Chainʼ (popularised by Janis, but actually brought to the public by Big Mama Thornton) — Otis plays it out like Ray Charles, moody and ominous, while Buddy does his best Bobby Bland impersonation and adds minimalistic jazzy leads (incidentaly, Wayne Bennett, Bobby Bland's guitar player, is also present on the album, but only as rhythm guitarist). It's not exceptional, but in between the two, they succeed in generating a haunting atmosphere of loneliness and depression, and the only problem is that more conventional numbers, such as B. B. King's ʽSweet Little Angelʼ and ʽWorry, Worryʼ, feel a little bland after it.
The «rockier» numbers are also done «gently»: ʽMoney (That's What I Want)ʼ is played with clean guitar and fluent, accurate piano (no Jerry Lee Lewis-style piano bashing allowed), and the re-recording of ʽMary Had A Little Lambʼ gives much of the melody to the brass section, while Buddy's soloing style is, once again, soft, smooth, and silky, to the extent that I probably couldn't tell it apart from B. B. King at this moment (well, no, actually, the two men's playing techniques are always different, but the guitar tone here is 100% Lucille). But that is no big deal — the big deal is that, for the first time in his life, Buddy here gets to play what he wants, how he wants, and (quite importantly) for as long as he wants (a couple of the songs have fade-outs that may have concealed even longer jamming bits, but how we will ever know?). And since it's all done with style and taste, let us just forget about the «identity-finding» issue (I mean, if you want to lay down a claim that Buddy never truly found his own identity until the 1990s, that's fine with me) and give this a well deserved thumbs up, and don't forget — this is as much thumbs up to Otis as it is to Buddy, if not more.