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"Gonna bail. Can't see a thing and nearly got my head kicked in by blues 'fans' for trying to get to the bar. Buddy Guy is better than this. Gonna go home and listen to Hoodoo Man"
Buddy Guy is one of the handful of the true original blues greats still going strong now. He’s responsible for at least two of the greatest blues albums ever made - Junior Wells’ Hoodoo Man Blues in 1965 and his own Sweet Tea in 2002. Now 72, he still tours regularly, and his profile benefits no doubt from associations with Clapton and The Stones, especially with his recent appearance with them in their Shine A Light movie which may very well have played a part in the fact that this pretty large venue was a sell-out.
The place was packed and on the ground floor the atmosphere was fetid in more ways than one. People at the top of, and blocking, stairs became increasingly annoyed at punters needing to get past them and it wasn’t long before grumbling threatened to turn into fisticuffs. Your reviewer decided to get the hell out of there, and in so doing sacrificed any hope of actually being able to see the stage.
Buddy was wildly greeted, and his every move, every word and every note was cheered to the rafters. He appeared to be enjoying himself, gurning manically and hamming it up for laughs, with plenty of audience involvement. People called out things like ‘We love you Buddy’ and around me punters roared with very public laughter at some of the single-entendre blues couplets he trotted out. The rest of the audience seemed to be having a great time and the vibe was that Buddy was a buddy rather than some mysterious and legendary figure. He appeared more than happy to play up to that, and a good time was had by all. Unfortunately, for me, with all the focus on showmanship and playing to the audience, Buddy seemed to have forgotten to bring a set with him.
There were very few numbers as such. Instead, the set was broken up into a series of periods of time, in which almost anything might get played for a bit and then dropped, and in which, at times, practically nothing was getting played. The rhythm section were on autopilot most of the time and could have got through a sizeable chunk of a longish novel between the times they were required to do much of anything.
The drill was that Buddy would do a bit of a song, often from what might be regarded as Blues Greatest Hits (Hoochie Coochie Man was an early example), the audience would sing along, Buddy would do some fooling with the crowd, and then we were on to a bit of something else, in a series of rambling medley-type things. There were extensive quiet periods, during which he did some of his trademark falsetto and some quiet guitar noodling, and then suddenly he would go into a burst of his equally trademark shrieking, with frenetic guitar soloing. These solos took the form of sheets of noise rather than what might be regarded as genuine playing, and there was plenty of guitar pyrotechnics, with the shredding of plectrums as he savaged the guitar, and wailing single notes held for ages and ‘shown’ to the crowd. Buddy was doing about 1% of what he can do, and the crowd loved it.
Around the midway point, I had retreated from the land of the tetchy to a position from which I could see nothing whatsoever, right at the back. Buddy was still playing and the gig was meandering on. Suddenly I became aware that he was standing right next to me, still playing. Part of the act is that he takes a tour of the auditorium, playing as he makes his way through the crowd. This struck me as being an especially brave act in that place, running the risk as he did of being shushed by an irate audience member or, worse still, not allowed to continue his journey by an audience member simply determined not to let anyone past. But he made it, and some minutes later was back on stage.
Some time later, to raucous cheers, he played the riff to Cream’s Sunshine Of Your Love, and a small part of me died. Here was one of the truly greatest blues artists of all time pleasing a crowd by playing the trademark riff of someone who himself acknowledges that Buddy is the real thing and he himself is but an imitator. But it had to be done, in the interests of crowd pleasing, or at any rate pleasing this particular type of crowd.
Then something curious happened. I may have completely misheard, but Buddy appeared to say that he was taking us through a tour of the people ‘who taught us every fuckin’ thing about the blues’. Was Buddy using irony, having a pop at Clapton? If so, he wasn’t letting on, and it went straight over the crowd’s heads, because they cheered that too.
A mention of Hooker got a cheer too, and we got about ten seconds of Boom Boom, and then Clapton’s name was mentioned again, and that got another cheer. Then went into Strange Brew, like a hideous moment of reality TV - "Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be someone who’s not as good as me but much better-known."
At this point I became temporarily estranged from the will to live and left. Behind me, the bad-tempered crowd (of all ages, I might add) cheered Buddy and tutted at each other in roughly equal measure.
I saw Buddy Guy at the same venue five years ago, when I sat upstairs, and I was completely blown away by him. The set was pretty rambling and unstructured then too, but every bit of it was focused. There was a darkness to him, an intensity and a remoteness. You got the feeling you were in the presence of someone from a whole other world, who wasn’t much bothered whether you knew about that world or not. He seemed like someone who was doing what he did, because he had to, because it was him. He seemed like someone who was quite cross about his lot in life, maybe someone you would cross at your peril. And he played and sang brilliantly, and you saw in front of your eyes why he was ‘a legend’.
Now, he seems to have ramped up the schtick element, which I don’t remember there being much of before, so that it’s taken over. This time it was more like vaudeville, the serious performer turning himself into some kind of comedian. He seemed much more interested in music before, now the music was just the bits between fooling with the crowd. And I suspect there’s a very good reason for that...
I think he’s worked out that the way to stay out of obscurity, the way to get decent-paying gigs all over the world in decent-sized venues, is to give crowds who’ve found him through rock music the kind of experience they want to have. Mention Clapton, play it for laughs, make some noise on the guitar, all that stuff.
And I certainly don’t want to get po-faced or prissy about all that. I’m genuinely glad that Buddy Guy can sell out a place like that, that there are apparently 2,000 passionate Buddy Guy fans in London. This isn’t about who’s a real blues fan and who isn’t, or any of that kind of nonsense, nor is it about some kind of purse-lipped disapproval, or sense of superiority on my part.
No, it’s about feeling when I left that I hadn’t actually seen Buddy Guy. He’s an absolutely fantastic guitarist and singer, he’s got a charisma possessed by only the very best, and he could tear you apart live. None of that was on display at this gig. In short, Buddy’s much, much better than the bloke who did this gig. And he is no way to blame for that at all. He’s just doing what he has to do.
I reckon Buddy must have a real set, a set he doesn’t do on these tours and in places like this. I reckon he probably only does this real set for the folks, the people he regards as real blues people. And I reckon it’s probably the best set you could ever hope to see. I’d love to see that set, but I doubt I ever will.