When music fans talk about the blues greats, titanic guitar players like Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Albert Collins and B.B. King are often mentioned. While those legends have left their earthly pursuits, one of their own soldiers on in the great tradition of American Delta blues guitar players, traveling from one city to the next, plying his string-bending wares to the music-loving masses. His name is Buddy Guy.
Monday evening Guy returned to the Austin City Limits TV soundstage (he recorded his first episode at the original Studio 6A in 1991) albeit his first taping on the Moody Theater stage at ACL Live as producer Terry Lickona reminded us during his introduction. The reverence with which Guy was met with from the audience when he took the stage signaled what was in store for viewers around the world (the program was live-streamed on YouTube). For the next 90 minutes, Guy tore the top of his bottomless box of a blues catalog and blew minds while bending strings and making his trusty Stratocaster sing.
Adorned in his customary polka-dotted shirt, Guy joined his band to kick off the taping performing “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues” with his Damn Right Blues Band chugging along behind the sometimes salty guitarist who blasted the venue with riffs over a heavy, deep bassline. A former session player for his mentor, Muddy Waters, Guy dusted off Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man,” howling the lyrics into his microphone with a guttural punch.
The exchange between Guy and his keyboardist, Marty Sammon, was an entertaining back-and-forth. Guy encouraged the audience to participate, and he continued to involve the crowd throughout the show. Soon after, the guitar impresario introduced “Cognac” from his latest release, The Blues is Alive and Well. Guy’s ability to make his contemporary songs sound as though he’d written it 40 years earlier on a dusty porch somewhere. The man creates a blues world and invites music fans into it. The experience feels transforming, as though the tough old bluesman is letting fans get a brief glimpse of a genius’ talent and wisdom.
Perhaps in spite of those realities, Buddy Guy appears to view himself (and his work) with a generous dose of levity, taking jabs at fans shouting out platitudes and gently teasing the audience at ACL Live when they weakly repeated his chorus during his own classic tune, “Somebody Else is Steppin Out (Slippin’ Out, Slippin’ In),” going as far as to request the house lights be turned up so he could “see who’s messin’ up” with a mischievous grin. Guy also left the stage during the song, wandering through the crowded venue while he peeled off stinging solos and belted out vocals with a wireless mic. The ease at which the man does this at 82-years old is impressive.
As is his tradition, Guy introduced his protégé Quinn Sullivan, who joined the band and proceeded to destroy solos during Cream and Jimi Hendrix covers. Sullivan frets the guitar so fast during those intense solos that you half-expect to see smoke rising from his instrument as he shreds progressions with his eyes half closed. As the set ended, Guy left the stage again, this time to pass out guitar picks with his trademark polka-dot design while his band and Sullivan delved into a decidedly bluesy version of Santana’s “Black Magic Woman. One fan impulsively stepped forward and hugged the lovable musician as he waded through the throng of fans. The action looked spontaneous as the woman had a surprised look on her face as she clung to her guitar hero for a tender moment.
Check your local PBS listings or acltv.com for schedules and times near you to watch this episode when it airs early next year.
All photos by Scott Newton courtesy of ACL TV