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Monday, December 14, 2015

Buddy Guy: Damn Right, I've Got The Blues

BUDDY GUY: DAMN RIGHT, I'VE GOT THE BLUES (1991)

1) Damn Right, I've Got The Blues; 2) Where Is The Next One Coming From; 3) Five Long Years; 4) Mustang Sally; 5) There Is Something On Your Mind; 6) Early In The Morning; 7) Too Broke To Spend The Night; 8) Black Night; 9) Let Me Love You Baby; 10) Rememberin' Stevie; 11*) Doin' What I Like Best; 12*) Trouble Don't Last.

A quarter century later, it is a little hard to understand what all the hoopla was about, but back in 1991, Buddy Guy's «comeback» album (or «breakthrough» album, to be more accurate, since he didn't exactly have a ton of hit records to be eclipsed) caused quite a bit of excitement. The entire music industry was rolling backwards a bit, after the oversaturated futurism and technocracy of the previous decade, and in a way, Buddy here became one of the symbols, or maybe even the sym­bol for the revival of raw electric blues. After all, most of the pioneers were dead, and those that were still alive didn't give much of a damn, or were way too prone to selling out whenever their record labels dropped a hint (B. B. King, for instance, had quite a few smelly duds through­out the Eighties). And here was a guy of stark integrity, who'd rather record on a minor label with no promotion, or not record at all, than go for pop choruses and electronic drums.

That said, Damn Right, I've Got The Blues still had to come out in England, on the small Sil­vertone Records label, where Buddy got signed up after having luckily partnered up with Eric Clapton for the latter's 24 Nights engagement at the Albert Hall (and some of Eric's backup team, including backing vocalists Tessa Niles and Katie Kissoon, are also playing here). The album was produced by John Porter, who was before then mostly known for working with The Smiths — which really meant that nobody would be truly getting in Buddy's way. And, just so that the sales could be boosted a bit and proper respect be paid, the man procures guest appearances not only from Eric himself, but from Jeff Beck and Mark Knopfler as well.

The result was... well, not exactly a smash hit, but the record did sell far more assuredly than any of Buddy's previous work, and attracted quite a bit of critical attention, going as far as to win the Grammy for best blues album. Finally, after all those years, the blues paid off, and the best thing about it was no need to compromise — well, maybe only a little bit, if «overproduction» counts as «compromise». Other than the backup girls and the guest stars, the sound is considerably beefed up by The Memphis Horns, and then there are two additional keyboardists and two more guitar players. But that is really not that different from the early records: Buddy always favored a big band sound, and he was always a «better with horns» kind of person. It's not his fault he was put on such a tight budget in the early Eighties.

Of course, the music here is not significantly better or worse than anything he recorded in the lean-hungry years. The songs are mostly old blues standards, occasionally interrupted by some contemporary writing (John Hiatt's ʽWhere Is The Next One Coming Fromʼ) or an old R&B cover or two (the inescapable ʽMustang Sallyʼ). The playing has plenty of energy and feeling, but not a lot of creativity — clearly, this here is not a man searching for new sounds, but a man un­loading his precious baggage, accumulated over the years, all in one place. Too many songs sound the same, and the arrangements never focus on outlining potential hooks: in just a few years, Clapton — who was quite likely motivated himself to do a straightahead blues album by Buddy's success — would really show the world how this thing can be done right with From The Cradle, where the inidividual touches on the songs and their sequencing made for an involving, surprise-filled journey. Damn Right, I've Got The Blues is not that kind of record.

And yet, it is a damn right good record all the same. It's as if this man here were given this one chance to do it right and succeed, and he totally throws himself in on that, throttling his guitar on every song and throwing a desperate vocal fit on the title track: "I can't win, cause I don't have a thing to lose" — just change that can't to a can and that's what it all is about. He is still being the hooligan of the blues, changing his tone from «clean» to «dirty» at will, embracing dissonance and off-rhythm playing when the heart calls for this, sending catcalls and wolf whistles from his six-string whenever his brain begins smouldering from too much excitement and complex, finger-flashing strings of notes become hard to concentrate upon. And he can be sentimental, throwing in a lengthy vocal-free serenade called ʽRememberin' Stevieʼ — of course, the best way to re­member Stevie is not through sheer sadness and melancholy, but through a mix of sadness with ferociously ass-kicking blueswailing of the ʽHave You Ever Loved A Womanʼ variety. (In fact, come to think of it, ʽRememberin' Stevieʼ is ʽHave You Ever Loved A Womanʼ with all the vo­cals safely stored over in the closet).

Although this is not the best album of Buddy's «comeback» period — more like a taste of even more exciting things to come — its sheer historic importance, in addition to general enjoyability, demands a thumbs up. I must say that I am somewhat dismayed by the guest star talents largely being wasted (unless you listen very hard, you won't even suspect that Knopfler, Clapton, and Beck are in the same building), but then it would certainly be impolite to subconsciously wish for them stealing the mat from under the guy's feet: they are quite expressly here to add to the mar­ket value, not to steal the black man's blues for the white man's gain one more time. Other than that, I couldn't complain of any unpredictable disappointments.

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