Buddy Guy, that unceasingly loveable old statesman of the blues, was born for the stage. In the studio, his magnanimity is a liability: Too often he’s allowed his raw product to be processed into genre exercises—virtuosic, but canned and glitzed in a manner that obscures the joy and immediacy of his devotion to his craft. The horn charts alone offer scores of teachable moments. Wilson Pickett needed only a trumpeter and a sax man, but Guy’s producers, this time Tom Hambridge, have preferred a quasi-big-band approach (think Preservation Hall via the Boston Pops). Guy’s new album, Rhythm & Blues, spills onto two discs, one named “Rhythm” and the other “Blues,” and the conceit would work if both halves of the album weren’t each encrusted with the same indistinguishable cheese.
Such disappointments are the price of admission to Guy’s studio oeuvre, and nothing Guy touches can ever be completely joyless—not with his ageless voice and polka-dot guitar slicing through the rote horns like one of Elijah’s flaming swords. “Seems like my own guitar is the only place I find the truth,” he sings on “All That Makes Me Happy Is the Blues,” and mercifully it still speaks volumes. It’s a somewhat tired notion that Guy helped map the musical path from formalist blues to the boogie rock of the mid ’60s. (Eric Clapton is unusually eloquent on this topic.) That genealogy provides the unspoken concept behind Rhythm & Blues and enlivens the better tracks, especially during the second half. The album’s core is this second disc, including the indelible blooze riffery of “Meet Me in Chicago” and the hey-seriously-this-thing-works of “Evil Twin,” a collaboration with Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, and Bradley Whitford (better known as the voice and guitar wings of Aerosmith). As Guy twines that iconic Telecaster between the contrapuntal rawk of Perry and Whitford, the listener begins to feel what Clapton expressed at Guy’s induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: “What Elvis was for many people, Buddy Guy was for me.”
Clapton’s annual Crossroads Guitar Festival is a great model for anti-addiction fundraising, but it’s a lousy model for an album, an observation that hasn’t stopped his fellow retirement-age guitar sages from drinking the Santana Kool-Aid, i.e. an open-door policy equals artistic daring. There’s nothing daring (only minorly revolting) about Guy’s collaborations with Kid Rock and Keith Urban on the first half of Rhythm & Blues, and most tracks sound like tributary guitar-gasms at a benefit concert. (It’s amazing that Jeff Lynne doesn’t elbow his way into the proceedings.) But things were not always this way. Guy used to work a sprawling band without losing his quintessential lack of filter. Consider Guy’s performance of Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford’s “Money (That What I Want)” at the 1970 Festival Express tour. At the time, consensus was that Guy was past his peak, but watch the band: small rhythm section, two horns, and everything tells. Guy hasn’t managed to capture that sound on wax in a couple of decades. Give me a live double-disc of Guy at his own blues club in Chicago with no guests any day of the week. Hold the trombone, thank you very much.