Buddy Guy’s partnership with producer and songwriter Tom Hambridge has made him quite successful, as we now find Guy in his eighth decade. And, according to Guy, one of the last original Chicago blues legends, with this release, The Blues Is Alive and Well. Listening to Guy sing the blues makes one wonder who else could bring the emotion and passion that he does. Certainly, no living bluesman can. If you didn’t know better, you’d peg Guy maybe as three to four decades younger. Part of that is due to the ringing clarity in production which keeps Guy’s masterful blues vocals in the forefront, even with backdrops of horns, keyboards, vocalists, and his own blazing guitar. Before Hambridge came aboard, Guy’s albums were about fiery guitar and vocals. Now they seem to focus more on the song and Guy’s vocals, with the guitar in a support role.
Hambridge and Guy play up Buddy’s life story again as they’ve done on the past three studio releases, this time looking forward rather than back. It may by now seem a bit too formulaic, but it still makes for some good songs. Hambridge and team are adept with this approach. Guy contemplates mortality in “A Few Good Years,” “Blue No More,” “When My Day Comes,” “Somebody Up There,” and “End of the Line.” Others, like the title track, center on Guy’s role as a blues patriarch. Guy sounds ebullient in the shuffling “Guilty As Charged” and, as usual, is the master of slow blues on tunes like “Cognac,” “You Did the Crime” and the B.B. King inspired “Blue No More” (written by Hambridge and Jamey Johnson).
Another common aspect of Hambridge helmed Guy albums are the infusion of guest artists. You may have read about Mick, Keith, and Jeff Beck joining these proceedings. Unlike past efforts where guests seemed out of place, it works here. That’s because none of the guests – Richards and Beck in their succinct guitar solos on “Cognac,” Jagger’s harmonica on “You Did the Crime” and rising star James Bay’s guitar and vocals on “Blue No More;” are overbearing. Guy is still clearly in charge.
Sessions were recorded in Nashville with guest overdubs coming from London. Hambridge plays drums and penned 13 of the 15 songs, mostly with co-writers. They also cover Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Nine Below Zero” and the oddly chosen closer “Milking Muther For Ya.” Hambridge brings in his Nashville cohorts – Kevin McKendree on keys, Rob McNelly on mostly rhythm guitar, along with Willie Weeks on bass. The McCrary Sisters appear on “Whiskey for Sale” and the four-piece Muscle Shoals horns add to three, including the title track.
Guy mostly plays his trademark Blond Stratocaster with a few turns on a Guild Starfire 45 as well as a couple of others. His solos are economical. As is the case with recent albums, that’s they way it is. The days of longer blistering solos a la Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues are gone. Fortunately, though, they stay in the groove of Chicago blues, rarely venturing into blues-rock mode.
Strip away the three or four filler tracks, add some extended Guy solos, and you’d have a more focused album. Yet, considering Guy’s legendary status, it’s a solid album that will likely contend for a Grammy on sentimental value alone.