BUDDY GUY: SKIN DEEP (2008)
1) Best Damn Fool; 2) Too Many Tears; 3) Lyin' Like A Dog; 4) Show Me The Money; 5) Every Time I Sing The Blues; 6) Out In The Woods; 7) Hammer And A Nail; 8) That's My Home; 9) Skin Deep; 10) Who's Gonna Fill Those Shoes; 11) Smell The Funk; 12) I Found Happiness.
Okay, this time, believe it or not, the guests make a good difference. There's Clapton on one of the tracks, singing and playing a little, but much more important is the presence of the Derek Trucks / Susan Tedeschi pair — not just because of the extra playing and singing, but because of a virtual «quality boost» that Derek's presence in the studio usually gives to his peers and even his elders. With a guy like that, you either have to give it your all, or step back — and since Derek's work aesthetics rejects «flash» and «showmanship» completely, your response has to be adequate. No monkeying around — just get to the point.
Maybe this is why the album opener, ʻBest Damn Foolʼ, despite not even featuring Derek, and despite being essentially based upon the age-old ʻBorn Under A Bad Signʼ groove, once again sounds sharper and livelier than anything on Buddy's last two records — not quite up to the level of Sweet Tea, because everything except Buddy's guitar is fairly routine, but up to Buddy's own personal highest standards, as he delivers barrages of shrill, simple, glass-cutting licks that have a whiff of «garage» attitude to them (and, in some ways, remind me of John Fogerty's classic soloing style — the way he could get the best out of the blues idiom with minimal means on stuff like ʻPenthouse Paperʼ or ʻNinety-Nine And A Halfʼ). Basically, the song just kicks ass.
Most of the material here is «original» (as usual, in Buddy's case this normally means setting old blues tunes to new lyrics), sometimes co-written with Tedeschi's producer Tom Hambridge (and occasionally just written by Hambridge on his own), but the topics remain the same — either bitchin' about the ten billionth woman in his imaginary life, or reminiscing about his real, but long gone life in the swamps of Louisiana (ʻOut In The Woodsʼ, ʻThat's My Homeʼ). At least once he hits upon a sensitive theme — ʻWho's Gonna Fill Those Shoesʼ namechecks a boatload of deceased bluesmen and leaves the question unanswered. Of course, it is hardly a coincidence that the song was contributed by Susan Tedeschi's associate, and that the young and promising Mr. Trucks was hovering somewhere in the neighborhood, but still there are no direct hints here that Mr. Trucks is in any way worthy of filling the shoes of Son House and Muddy Waters, so we might as well suppose that Buddy answers this to himself in the negative (Buddy himself, belonging to the same old breed, does not count, of course — and he was a whoppin' 72 years old when this platter was recorded, for that matter; but then again, for a 72-year old he really swings that axe on the track, acknowledging his guitar as an equal partner in the righteous indignation over the fact that the shoes are not gonna be filled by just anyone).
Stuff like ʻToo Many Tearsʼ, on which the old man duets with Tedeschi, is the kind of unexciting contemporary smooth-blues-rock fodder that usually goes in one ear and out the other — and, honestly, Susan Tedeschi is a very nice lady and a respectable promoter of the blues, but she is very, very ordinary and unexciting (sort of like a sandpapered Bonnie Raitt). Her husband, however, is a different matter, and his trademark slide wailings make a great counterpoint for Buddy's style — too bad that they don't really get to properly «spar» on any of these songs; in fact, every time Derek is in, Buddy slyly (coyly?) steps back as a player and concentrates on the singing.
It doesn't nearly manage to save the title track, though, which is just too preachy and weepy: yes, most of us know that "underneath we're all the same", and okay, some of us should probably be reminded of that from time to time, but just a little more complexity couldn't hurt, and besides, Buddy Guy is not a friggin' soul singer — he does not quite have the voice or the phrasing right for this. But fortunately, ʻSkin Deepʼ is just one such track here, probably designed to boost sales a little bit as middle-class sentimentalists battle racism by shedding tears over how we should "treat everybody just the way you want them to treat you" (Confucius™). The other songs do not exactly supercede ʻSkin Deepʼ in terms of non-banality, but they tend to kick ass, and you usually tend to forget about how banal something is when it kicks your ass on a relentless basis.
Anyway, more highlights: ʻOut In The Woodsʼ has a great swampy solo, with Buddy impersonating a hungry alligator from his childhood nightmares; ʻLyin' Like A Dogʼ is seven and a half minutes of slow angry ʻFive Long Yearsʼ-style blues, perfectly played and produced (not sure what else to say); ʻShow Me The Moneyʼ and ʻHammer And Nailʼ display Buddy's sense of humour, and ʻSmell The Funkʼ displays his, um, well... pretty strong vibe there for a 72-year old, maybe even a little too strong. Sure puts some of these youngsters to shame — ah, who's gonna fill those shoes?
Do not get me wrong: Skin Deep is fairly generic and conventional, there's not a single thread of exploration here as there seemed to be on Sweet Tea. But it is a good kind of generic, brought on by people who just want to make a little difference by throwing in a little bit of sheer spirit. This, at least according to my cherished gut feeling, is not just a record made out of the need to make another record — and for that, given that the key player is Buddy and the supporting force is Derek, it automatically deserves a thumbs up. Just sort of ignore the title track. There are much more efficient ways in which you can fight racism, believe me.