Album review: BUDDY GUY – Rhythm & Blues

RCA Silvertone [Release date 29.07.13]

The cornerstone to Buddy Guy’s first ever double album is the relatively late definition of the term blues.  The music he first started playing was R&B – CD1 provides the rhythm and CD2 the blues – and it wasn’t until the Brit blues invasion that R&B was marketed as blues. ‘Rhythm & Blues’ is the perfect summation of his own unique and enduring style.

It’s an album that is overseen by drummer and Grammy Award winning writer/producer Tom Hambridge who perfectly captures Buddy incendiary solos and expressive autobiographical reflections. And while he seamlessly incorporates a handful of guest into the 21 tracks (most of which work), Hambridge’s most significant contribution is getting the spirited performances out of one of the last true historical blues figures on the planet.

But Buddy Guy has never been been a prisoner of the blues. His spontaneous, intense solos and open minded approach to music has meant he’s long been embraced by younger generations of rock musicians. Moreover, other than his original work with contemporaries such as Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters and Junior Wells, it is often forgotten that he struggled to get beyond the ranks of a session player at Chess records who refused to record his powerhouse playing, and he barely recorded at all in the 80’s.

It’s all the more ironic then that in spite of his success in the 90’s onwards, the subtext to this album is his unfulfilled wish to get the blues on to mainstream radio. And if ‘Rhythm & Blues’ doesn’t succeed in helping him realize his aim, it won’t be for the lack of quality on a double album that rarely dips below excellent.

The key to this album is his long time collaborator Tom Hambridge who also did a great job on James Cotton’s ‘Cotton Mouth Man’ album. The common thread between the two projects is Hambridge’s ability to incorporate several autobiographical inspired narratives into a song and get a moving performance from the artist to give them contemporary currency.

This is never more so than on the blues portion of the album, with the up tempo urgency of ‘Meet Me In Chicago’, the lascivious country blues meets electric guitar of ‘I Could Die Happy’ and the Hambridge/David Gogo penned ‘Never Gonna Change’, on which Buddy sings: ‘I’ve been on the road since the age of 15, there’s nothing out there I ain’t never seen, I keep moving on from town to town, I’m never gonna put my damn guitar down’.

And while songs like the heartfelt ‘My Mama Loved Me’ feel slightly strange, if only because they feature Buddy as an interpreter of someone else’s personal lyrics, he pours all his heart and soul into the song. Buddy does get a co-writing credit on the evocative ‘I Came Up Hard’, which carries the poignant line: ‘I picked my share of cotton, I drank water from a creek, Split a hot dog 5 ways, just to make it through the week’.

Apparently the album wasn’t originally conceived as a double set, but it grew exponentially.  ‘I Came Up Hard’ is an example of this organic approach, as the sheer intensity of the solo and the emotional pull of the song provides a defining moment on the album.

‘Rhythm & Blues’ opens with the abrasive wah-wah drenched funk of ‘Best In Town’. It’s a song inspired by some early parental advice, which provides Buddy with the first of several philosophical reflections on the album: ‘You don’t have to be the best in town, just try to be the best until the best come round.’

Buddy’s gently voiced guitar and a haunting tremolo figure perfectly evokes the song title of the Hambridge/GaryNicholson penned ‘I Go By Feel’. The apposite lyrics are perfect for a performer capable of bringing a heartfelt quality to lines such as: ‘Sometimes it seems like a mystery, I just close my eyes and it comes to me, it’s something I don’t even understand, I just open my heart and it flows right through my hands’. He adds an uplifting solo and ad libs: ‘listen to it’, over a big string arrangement.

A handful of guests offer potential crossover appeal.  Keith Urban contributes impressively to the soulful ‘One Day Away’, while Beth Hart’s peerless vibrato brings real pith to the muscular ‘What You Gonna Do About Me’ and Aerosmith’s animated vocalist Seven Tyler hogs the limelight on ‘Evil Twin’, as Joe Perry and Brad Whitford join Buddy for a guitar wig out.

Gary Clark Jr. trades licks and duets with Buddy on the rollicking ‘Blue Don’t Care’, though Buddy’s vocal dominates it, but a pairing with Kid Rock on ‘Messin’ With The Kid’ is less successful and would have been wholly out of step with the album, but for the fact that Buddy played on the original version.

Disc 1 provides the horn led polish, though one of the best tracks, ‘Whiskey Ghost’ – a haunting tale of alcoholism – is a tremolo led shuffle that eschews the horns. Disc 2 showcases the meat and potatoes of Buddy’s fiery playing, though again there’s a notable exception with the self evidently titled and horn inflected  ‘All That Makes Me Happy Is The Blues’, which is anchored by real feel.

It’s also the one solitary song on which his confident phrasing momentarily wavers and he launches himself into a raucous guitar break before heading back to the wurlitzer embedded groove.  Mel London’s ‘Poison Ivy’ is a stylistic departure for Buddy but it provides the album with a swing-led bookend.

‘Rhythm & Blues’ is a great album, all the more remarkable for the consistent and at times inspired performances from a septuagenarian whose steely playing and expressive vocals ride rough-shod over any whiff of the formulaic.  This is a landmark double album that boldly carries the torch for the real meaning of R&B.  ****½ 

Review by Pete Feenstra


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