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Monday, November 2, 2015

Buddy Guy: This Is Buddy Guy!

BUDDY GUY: THIS IS BUDDY GUY! (1968)

1) I Got My Eyes On You; 2) The Things I Used To Do; 3) Fever; 4) Knock On Wood; 5) I Had A Dream Last Night; 6) 24 Hours Of The Day; 7) You Were Wrong; 8) I'm Not The Best.

Oh yes indeed, now this is Buddy Guy, with an exclamation mark, make no mistake about it. The man's first ever live album was recorded at the New Orleans House in Berkeley, California, and, true to the location, combines New Orleanian extravagance with the Californian sense of wild­ness and freedom. Vulnerable metaphors aside, this is simply a kick-ass performance that, for the very first time, gives us retro-listeners a taste of «Buddy unleashed» that was unthinkable on his Chess singles, and still very much subdued on his earliest studio recordings for Vanguard.

There is a problem, though. At the time, Buddy was clearly still on a major James Brown kick, and thought himself as much an R&B artist as a bluesman — which means that the selections are more or less equally divided between scorching blues / blues-rock performances and sweaty R&B rave-ups. And while the rave-ups are dutifully red-hot, and even Buddy's unknown brass section does a good job interacting with his ecstatic vocals, you just can't help the feeling that all of this is not playing to the man's greatest strengths. The best thing about them, really, is that they help to break up the monotonousness — one 12-bar blues tune after another can get tiresome even if the guitar work is always awesome — but while I heartily welcome the inclusion of ʽFeverʼ, which Buddy delivers with an almost comedic flair, ʽKnock On Woodʼ is mainly an excuse for pestering the audience about whether they feel all right, and the album-closing ʽI'm Not The Bestʼ is basically six minutes of "Good God!" screeching over a repetitive brass riff. Basically, there's too much of this wannabe-James-Brown posturing here to make me take this seriously.

The blues stuff, though — that is a different matter. From the opening licks of ʽI Got My Eyes On Youʼ, you understand that a new, daring, challenging presence on the blues scene has been made available: less wild and otherworldly than Hendrix, perhaps, and not as endowed with the gift of subtlety as B. B. King, but more fiery and eccentric than just about any other black gui­tarist alive at the time. It is not when he tries to imitate James Brown or Little Richard with his singing and showmanship that he is at his greatest — it is when he puts a little bit of James Brown or Little Richard into his guitar playing, giving the instrument a unique jerky, sputtering voice that ignites all sorts of passions when the man is really «on».

And here, he is totally on for all the duration of ʽI Got My Eyes On Youʼ, a militant mid-tempo boogie with gunfire soloing; for all of the slow-moving ʽI Had A Dream Last Nightʼ, whose scraggly, chaotic, stuttery guitar licks, sometimes building up to fabulous series of trills, are such a far cry from the carefully nuanced, economic, silky-soft sound of B. B. King; and for all of ʽYou Were Wrongʼ, with a slightly cleaner guitar tone that does not, however, in any way dimi­nish the rawness and roughness of delivery. This is the kind of sound that may, indeed, have cha­racterized his live playing for quite some time already — the kind of sound that inspired people like Clapton and Page, with whom we tend to associate it more than with Buddy, just because, well, Buddy Guy didn't get the chance to become a household name before the 1990s. But he was there all right, and This Is Buddy Guy! proves it.

And even if I'd only like to treasure one half of the album (honestly, I don't care at all if I never get to hear Buddy spit out "good God!" on the likes of ʽI'm Not The Bestʼ again in my life), that half is reason enough to award a thumbs up to the album in general. Of course, not every Buddy Guy live album is deserving a thumbs up by definition (in fact, some disgruntled fans state that no Buddy Guy live album so far has managed to truly capture the exuberance of his performance in all its glory), but here's to first-coming and introducing a new distinctive voice that could hold its own against all the big ones in the business — no mean feat for 1968 and its new, Hendrix-dependent standards of quality.

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