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Monday, November 9, 2015

Buddy Guy: Buddy And The Juniors

BUDDY GUY: BUDDY AND THE JUNIORS (1970)

1) Talkin' 'Bout Women Obviously; 2) A Motif Is Just A Riff (Riffin'); 3) Buddy's Blues; 4) (I'm Your) Hoochie Coochie Man; 5) Five Long Years; 6) Rock Me Mama; 7) Ain't No Need.

This probably is not at all the sort of record one would normally associate with Buddy Guy, Hot Lover of Electric Blues Guitar — a minimalistic, all-acoustic session with Buddy on guitar, Junior Wells on harmonica and, sure enough, one more Junior (Mance) on piano joining the two better known legends on the third track and sticking with them to the end. The whole thing pretty much came about by accident (producer Michael Cuscuna «tricked» Vanguard Records into holding the session so that they could also back up a regular Buddy Guy album which he also produced), and you know how professional music critics love such accidents — the record gets nothing but rave reviews, even if few of the rave reviewers probably get the urge to listen to it again once they get all the admiration off their chests.

In all honesty, there is nothing particularly special about the session. As an «unplugged» player, Buddy is okay, but neither his technique nor his inventiveness on the instrument would put him on the level of those Delta veterans for whom the acoustic guitar was the instrument — much like Hendrix becomes «just okay» when you hear him play acoustic. When they get down to soloing or jamming, it is mostly Junior Wells' harmonica that occupies the spotlight, and even if the guy had superb technique and expressivity on the level of Little Walter or Sonny Boy Williamson, it could be a chore to sit through for 40 minutes; and he is actually slightly below these fellas when it comes to «blowpower» or musical phrasing, although sometimes he makes cool counterpoints to Buddy's vocal lines (the "black night... black night" section on ʽFive Long Yearsʼ, for instance, when the harmonica «fades in» and «whooshes» past you like a spirit in the night).

Mostly, the record is about attitude; the first track is a ten-minute 12-bar improvisation where the chuckling, the whispering, the occasionally quivering vocalizing, the minimalistic syncopation are much more important than the nearly non-existent melody or the totally irrelevant lyrics. On the second track, Buddy does indeed play the same acoustic riff over and over again, with Wells either picking it up on harmonica or veering off on a tangent — and despite the simplicity, they do manage to create the atmosphere of some important shamanistic ritual, as if nagging and nag­ging and nagging away at that riff were sure to eventually restore balance to the universe. It helps that the riff itself is mysteriously bass-heavy, and Buddy's occasional grunts give the illusion that playing it is about as difficult as lifting heavy weights, but no pain, no gain — it's not that easy to restore balance to the universe, you know.

The atmosphere actually dissipates a little bit when the piano player joins in and the trio begins playing more predictable classics like ʽHoochie Coochie Manʼ and ʽFive Long Yearsʼ. Some critics praise Junior Mance's piano playing here to high heaven — I don't know, I think he's just keeping his end up fairly well, but comparisons with Otis Spann are unjustified, since this guy has neither the fluency nor the coolness and confidence of Otis (for actual comparison, refer to A Man And The Blues, where Otis made the record shine in all those places where Buddy was not able to — this piano playing, in comparison, does little for me except providing some extra rhyth­mic support and clogging up one recording track). Worst of all is when they decide to close the session with a boogie piece (ʽAin't No Needʼ), and Mance plays like two or three different notes throughout, with Wells as your only hope for some nitty-gritty stuff, and it's not even as if he were doing his best, either.

Ultimately, this is a disappointment — I admire Buddy, and Junior Wells can be a delightfully bad blues guy when he really gets into that spirit, but here they seem to be holding a «who of us can get more low-key?» competition, which starts out as subtly atmospheric but then rapidly pro­gresses into boringly non-atmospheric. Unless you believe that any acoustic session between two blues heroes automatically deserves a thumbs up, I see no big reason to bother here, although, as a historical document, Buddy And The Juniors probably has its place in the annals of Superstar Meetings. Decent acoustic blues, if nothing else.

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