BLOWN! AWAY! yet again with “The Blues Don’t Lie.”
My girlfriend walked into my crappy basement apartment, motioned to the stereo and, nearly shouting to make herself heard over the wailing guitar, asked, “What’s this?”
It was the second or third revolution through my new CD, and I left the system on “Repeat.” Over and over and over again I played it through the weekend, into the following workweek and beyond.
“It’s Buddy Guy!” I hollered back, “I just bought it today. Isn’t it awesome!”
Damn right, I had the blues. More specifically, Buddy Guy’s “Chicago-style electric blues” on “Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues.”
I announced to my girlfriend, once she’d turned down the volume so we could actually hear each other, that I was never going to buy another rock album, ever. All blues for me from then on.
That was 1993. Guy had released “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues” in 1991 and it won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album that year. It was his first. I’d finally read about it and decided to check it out on my way home from work that Friday evening.
Now it’s nearly 30 years later, I’ve been married to the woman who was my girlfriend at the time for more than 28 and Buddy’s up for another Grammy. This time it’s for “The Blues Don’t Lie” in the Best Traditional Blues Album category. If he wins, it’ll be for the 9th time out of 14 nominations.
Live at Bluestem
I saw Guy live at Bluestem Amphitheater in Moorhead, Minn., on the east side of the Red River of the North from its sister city, Fargo, N.D., where I live.
Jonny Lang, a blues guitarist and vocalist who also happens to be a Fargo native, opened for Guy that night, June 18, 2017. The two had recorded a song together many years before that, as well, called “Midnight Train.”
Lang’s set was good. Guy’s was astounding.
The legendary bluesman was just six weeks shy of his 81st birthday that evening. He was born in 1936, when almost no-one in the USA owned a television and in many areas of the country folks still didn’t have indoor plumbing.
Yet throughout the show it seemed his age was more like an speedometer reading, with Guy stomping the pedal through a string of his own songs and covers of other legends.
At one point he raced up and down the stairways between the outdoor amphitheater’s sections, playing to the crowd not only with a wailing guitar and baritone/tenor, but his feet, too.
He even complained playfully about Bluestem’s closing time, 11 p.m., instituted to placate the residents of neighborhoods near the venue.
“They’re tellin’ me I gotta quit soon,” he said between numbers. “Damn! I could play all night.”
Oh, if only that could’ve been.
Buddy Guy’s Blues Don’t Lie
Guy’s 86 now, and “The Blues Don’t Lie” might be his best album yet.
Picking it up a couple of weeks ago was a lot easier than it was 30 years back – just a few clicks to iTunes – but the results have been the same.
BLOWN! AWAY! yet again. And another addition to the limited group of albums I play top to bottom, over and over and over again for days that will likely stretch into weeks.
Guy gets right down to it on the opening track, “I Let My Guitar Do the Talking.”
Man, does he ever, and boy-oh-boy, does it ever. The track howls, climbing up and down the scales, screeching at the high end and moaning at the low, with Buddy’s voice howling right along with it.
“Whew!” he sings at one point, “my gui-tar’s TALKIN’!”
From there, Guy navigates through straight blues and blues infused with funk, rock and soul. His guitar figures prominently, of course, but piano, horns and blasts of harmonica weave in and out seamlessly. The tone meanders from pain to longing and from celebration to melancholy, pulling the helpless but happy listener along like a rudderless raftsman on the Mighty Mississippi.
“The world needs love,” Guy sings in the song of the same name, “like you never seen. How the hell can some people be so damn mean?“
It’s a great question, followed by a song that goes even deeper, from mean to ever-so-low. I haven’t felt the likes of “We Go Back” since I first heard Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.” And, yes, “felt” is the right way to say it; “Hurt” leaves the listener feeling below sad, almost desolate, longing for something to make everything right again, but resolution – good or bad – never comes.
So it is with “We Go Back,” which features Mavis Staples, a legendary R&B and soul singer in her own right, not to mention an actress and civil rights activist. They take us back to a time when a cup of coffee cost a nickel / newspaper sold for a dime.
We go back / When the blues was everywhere / We go back / Fightin’ hard to get our share
Way back to an April 1968 afternoon when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. fell dead on a hotel balcony in Memphis, victim of a sniper’s bullet.
“Times were bad, what a time we had,” Staples laments, “we go back, way, way back.”
There’s no giveaway positive spin here, just an acknowledgement of the will and strength to keep on movin’ on and the good fortune to feel it all again from a safe distance of years.
Or have the years truly made it safe?
That’s the question as Guy and Jason Isbell bring us forward again, to the mass shootings of our daily lives in “Gunsmoke Blues.”
Trouble down at the high school / Somebody got the gunsmoke blues / Read it in the morning paper / Watch it on the evening news… Some folks blame the shooter / Other folks blame the gun / But that don’t stop the bullets / And more bloodshed to come.
But there’s a lot of fun here, too. “Symptoms of Love” with Elvis Costello and “Follow the Money” with James Taylor are a couple of tunes that feature a man who’s been around long enough to know exactly what’s what.
Fine looking woman with a fat old man / Might be hard to understand / He knows what is going on / Be by his side ’til it’s all gone… Fine lookin’ thing callin’ him honey / Follow the money.
“What’s Wrong With That,” meanwhile, is a joyful yet defiant testament from Guy and Bobby Rush, a couple of dudes who have earned the right to demand what they like, just the way they like them:
I don’t beat around the bush / I like what I like / What’s wrong with that.
It’s not a question for Guy and Rush.
What’s wrong with that? Not a damn thing. Nope, nothing wrong here, save the fact that I’m not doing Buddy Guy’s new album justice.
“The Blues Don’t Lie.” Listen to it. Buy it. Download it. Love it. Play it over and over and over again….
More to THE MAN
Anyone who knows anything about the blues knows Buddy Guy. Musicians, blues aficionados, critics and others who actually know what they’re talking about have pointed out his greatness hundreds if not thousands of times over the years.
As for me, I’m just a huge fan, music lover and word guy who loves poignant lyrics that ride the rompin’ waves of expert instrumentation. And in this layman’s estimation, “The Blues Don’t Lie” is absolute lyrical and musical poetry.
Plus, there’s more to The Man than the music or lyrics.
Guy’s mentorship of young bluesmen like Lang and, more recently, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, is a great example. As one writer reports, Kingfish is a “23-year-old phenom from the Mississippi Delta widely hailed as ‘the future of the blues.’” I have to agree with the assessment. As he did with Lang, Guy recorded a song with Kingfish, too; give “Fresh Out” a listen.
When Buddy and his contemporaries pass the torch, it’ll be in good hands with the likes of Ingram.
Incidentally, it was after reading that piece, which mentions Guy’s benevolence, that I started wondering what he’s been up to lately, and that led to the discovery of the new album.
By any standard, “The Blues Don’t Lie” is a beauty. And, once again, just like “Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues,” I’m listening to it over and over and over again.
It’s been a long time since my discovery of Buddy Guy. I did not adhere to my rash proclamation in the intervening years – of course I’ve purchased, listened to and loved a many, many rock-n-roll albums in the ensuing years – but the mix of blues in my listening repertoire has been stronger than it would’ve been without Buddy.
I hope “The Blues Don’t Lie” wins the Grammy. Both the album and Buddy Guy deserve it.
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Featured image via buddyguy.net.