It was Muddy Waters’ 100th birthday and Buddy Guy, one of few living musicians who played with the man, was telling a room full of white people that they fucked up.
It was about 9:30 on a Saturday night, and Buddy Guy explained to the crowd of one thousand people that he never would have learned his trade if not for Muddy Waters 78s. Then he started to sing “Hoochie-Coochie Man.” He expected the audience to know what that gypsy woman said Muddy Waters would be when he grew up. Some people thought the answer was “greatest man alive,” others thought it was “son of a gun,” and most people didn’t make a sound. He stopped the music.
“I played this same song in Tokyo three weeks ago, and guess what?” he asked rhetorically, before he brought the hammer down. “They didn’t fuck it up like you did.”
It was a strange night. It was strange that Buddy Guy, once a house guitarist for the mythical Chess Records, was even on that stage. Here it was Muddy Waters’ 100th birthday and Buddy Guy was not only alive, but alive and playing yet another anonymous road gig. The anniversary was just a happy coincidence.
I was seeing him for the same reason a lot of people see him – because he was there when it all happened in Chicago. He played with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and Big Mama Thornton. I would have gone to see him talk in the general vicinity of a guitar. He didn’t need to do anything. In the absence of Muddy Waters, I’m happy just to see somebody who played with him.
But I knew Buddy Guy almost entirely by reputation. Sure, he played with everybody, and he was in that one ghostly Big Mama Thornton video, looking considerably too cool to be alive in 2015, but that was all I knew. I had no idea what his show was like in color.
I had my own biases about what the crowd would be like. Historically, people who tell me Buddy Guy is their favorite blues player – the guy who taught Hendrix his shit, man – also tell me about that time they had killer seats at the Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood show. They are people who say shreds like shredding is the most valuable cultural export blues has to offer. People who think blues is as vital as ever because of skinny Yankees who want to be Jeff Beck and have a line of signature amps at Guitar Center. You know, it’s blues night at Riley’s, your brother’s boss is in the band, and oh please no, they don’t, they can’t, but they do, and they are – they’re closing on a 15-minute version of “Mustang Sally.”
And that scene was extremely well represented in Buddy Guy’s crowd at this anonymous road gig in California.
It was the white-collar blues-rock scene, the one that really wants you to listen to Joe Bonamassa and says tone more than feel. And Buddy Guy told them to shut the fuck up a lot. It was second nature to him, something he clearly did in every town; an integral part of his stagecraft. He didn’t need this crowd, they needed him.
Now, when I saw the remnants of the Muddy Waters band a few years ago, they looked and carried themselves like World War II veterans at an incumbent governor’s campaign rally. They were there because other people told them to be there, and they were tired, and they were couldn’t in a million years give a damn about the emcee prattling on about how their exploits were legendary.
Buddy Guy’s in the same demographic. He’s 78. He was every bit as there, in Chicago – Muddy Waters gave him a career, after all – but he’s separate from all the other Living Blues Legends, almost all of whom are now Dead Blues Legends. His act is worlds apart. He looks about twenty years younger than he is and moves around the stage like he just bought a motorcycle.
He’s not in the “living link to history” racket. He doesn’t need to prove blues is yet another important American cultural movement. And he’s not interested in fitting into any tradition. He’s more concerned with proving Buddy Guy can win the people over through sheer charisma and swagger.
On stage, he’s a showman first and a bluesman second. He blinds you with his swagger until you’re under his control, and he could probably do it without playing any music at all.
His act consists of whatever the hell he wants to do. Sometimes that means playing his own songs, sometimes that means impressions of other bluesmen, and sometimes that means going into the audience and working the crowd. The result is chaos around a scripted theme. He might play half of a song, get bored, and just talk, or berate the front row.
When he does play guitar, it’s tough, muscular, and effortless, and you understand instantly why every blues-rock player of historical consequence idolized him. At his most id-driven, he creates the impression that he could outperform anybody in the genre if he felt like it.
But he’s equally content to let his band do all the work while he makes a face as if to say “well, you paid to see me do what I want, and here I am, doing it.”
The man can do near about anything worth doing on a guitar, and he does it just long enough to prove he could beat up Keith Richards if it really came down to that.
For a little over an hour, he strutted around the venue, telling stories, picking on drunks, lecturing everybody about corporate radio, and playing about four songs in their entirety. Then he was gone without an encore, presumably back at his hotel by the time the house lights went up, never to return. In all likelihood, he’ll be the last blues icon standing, and tomorrow night he’ll be in some other town, telling another thousand white people they fucked up. Muddy Waters would be proud.