January 9, 1999
Story and Photo by Tony BonyataChicago winters can be brutal. Ice, snow, sub-arctic temperatures not to mention post-holiday blues all make one wonder what the heck they’re doing in this God-forsaken place this time of year. The answer has long been evident for blues fans, however - Buddy Guy.
Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy has been heating things up for years at his own nightclub Buddy Guy's Legends on South Wabash Avenue. Although Guy rarely plays his own club throughout the year, it has become an annual tradition for him to pack the house with two or three weeks of his own shows in January.
Guy's legend looms large throughout this city that originally adopted the blues from it's dusty Delta cradle, and raised it in her backstreets - that is, any backstreet that you could plug an electric guitar and amplifier into.
Born and raised in Lettsworth, Louisiana, Guy moved north to Chicago in 1957 like many southern bluesmen before him. Befriended by Muddy Waters, Guy soon became an in-demand session guitarist for Willie Dixon, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Koko Taylor and Waters. In the 60's he went on to record what are now considered classic blues albums for Chess and Vanguard Records and formed a longtime musical relationship with harmonica player Junior Wells, who died early last year. As far as his reputation in the music world is concerned Buddy is second only to Muddy Waters as the king of Chicago blues.
It was no surprise that, like previous years before, all of his 21 consecutive shows in January sold-out in no time at all.
Guy finished out his three-week stint on Saturday, January 30, and although the show was slightly flawed by some minor technical difficulties, he left the crowd satisfied with a slew of stunning cover songs, many which he transformed into his own, as well as some of his better known signature tunes.
Fit and trim and dressed in his trademark bib-overalls, Guy looked remarkable for a man of 62. His choice of axe for the majority of the night was a Fender 'Stevie Ray Vaughn' Signature Stratocaster (Stevie Ray was a personal friend of his before his untimely death on the hills of Alpine Valley in East Troy, WI - Guy incidentally backed up Vaughn at that same show). The atmosphere he created that night was comfortable, loose and intimate, as if he were playing for just a few close friends. With no apparent set-list in mind, Guy instead pulled songs out of a hat at a moments notice, sometimes only playing the intro of a number before coming to a screeching halt and leaping into the next (which was quite infuriating as he bailed out of not only a smoking intro to Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" but also a rousing cover of fellow bluesman John Lee Hooker's "Boom (Boom)". Luckily, he did manage to finish some wonderful covers, such as the rowdy R&B number "Knock On Wood", a funky version of Bill Withers' "Use Me" as well as a haunting revisiting of Cream's "Strange Brew".
His four-piece band, which consisted of drummer Ray Allison, keyboardist Tony Z, bassist Orlando Wright and guitarist Scott Holt (whose solid rhythms and flashy blues-rock style drew comparisons to Hendrix and Stevie Ray), kept up quite neatly with the erratic but fun whims of their boss. Although these guys could move mountains with their fiery rhythms and pounding beats, they proved most effective with their sense of dynamics, firing on all cylinders when needed but able to bring it down to a whisper to showcase Guy's soulful voice and stinging guitar.
Buddy pleased the crowd with two of his more recent, and most popular numbers, "Damn Right, I've Got The Blues" and "Feels Like Rain" with Guy prodding the audience to sing along, only to find him admittedly sorry after a weak attempt by the ill-timed crowd. He also paid homage to some of his early blues mentors as he performed a funked-up version of Muddy Waters' "I Just Want To Make Love To You" (which he recorded for his latest album Heavy Love) as well as a lip-smackin' take of "Got My Mojo Working". As a youth Guy was infatuated with the flashy live performances of New Orlean's blues great Guitar Slim which found him running off the stage with his guitar and wailing through the audience. Guy stole this old performance trick from the master and worked every fan-clustered corner of his club before he flung open the door to a wintry Wabash Avenue and proceeded to play his guitar down the block, giving outsiders a brief taste of what was going on inside the club.
Although his guitar sound was plagued with an annoying amplified hum for a good portion of the evening, Guy's good-natured honesty and irresistible smile more than made up for this minor setback.
Ever since Buddy Guy started performing these warm and personal shows at Legends in January, Chicago winters have seemed to be getting a lot shorter. Now if we could only get him to keep on playing through February we'd have it made.
Return to Reviews
Return to Menu