It was a family affair on a cold January Chicago night as a blues legend took to the stage in his packed club in Chicago.
There’s not much that hasn’t already been written about the life of Buddy Guy or his music. From humble beginnings in Louisiana, he grew to be one of the most influential guitarists in the world, playing with fire and intensity that made him stand out from traditional blues players. It was a style that was ahead of its time and wasn’t fully appreciated by his record company in his earliest days. But, his music influenced a whole generation of guitarists, many of whom’s guitars now hang on the wall of Legends, his club at 600 S Wabash St in Chicago.
While Buddy typically plays more than 200 shows a year worldwide, there’s something special about coming to see him play in his club. You get the feeling that you’re walking into a family home. From the doorman, who’s been working the door since 1994, to the bar staff, to his son who works security. It feels like everyone there is doing what they love, rather than working just to make rent. And, of course, a job in Legends comes with the bonus that every January, during his residency, you get the chance to see your boss bring down the house four nights a week.
Opening duties fell to Nellie ‘Tiger’ Travis and her band. Nellie is a regular on the Chicago blues scene, and for good reason. She played an excellent set, with her band providing the perfect platform for her powerful vocals to take center stage. Throwing in some audience participation for good measure meant that, by the time she was done, the crowd was really in the mood for what was to come.
When Buddy and his band took to the stage at around 10:30 pm, they launched into “Damn Right I Got The Blues.” Buddy was right on point, opening with a screaming solo and those gritty vocals that let you feel every emotion he felt when he wrote the track.
Buddy’s age seems to have no bearing on how he performs. During the night, he played his guitar behind his back, with a drumstick, with a towel, and whilst he was wandering through the audience. Nobody watching the show would have said this was a performer approaching his 80th birthday. In fact, the only thing that would draw any attention to his age is the fact that he is, effectively, the last great blues musician of his generation. Indeed, in a Rolling Stone interview last year he mentioned that, after the loss of BB King, he realized he was “the last one here.”
Moving words about both BB King and Muddy Waters preceded the next two songs with Buddy’s guitarist, Ric Jaz, getting his chance to shine with a phenomenal solo and some great showmanship, spinning his guitar on its strap as he finished up.
The title track of new album, Born to Play Guitar, was a particular highlight; a sure sign that whilst Buddy may be “the last one here,” there are no signs of him slowing down. The album, like his live performance, showcases every aspect of Buddy’s playing and singing, ranging from down-home classic blues tracks to the blues rock showstopper “Whisky, Beer and Wine.”
Following some great call and response with keyboard player Marty Sammon (who is a superb player and musician in his right – check out his album, Hound Dog Barkin) comes the acoustic portion of the set that included covers of John-Lee Hooker, Cream, and Marvin Gaye.
Another highlight of the night was “Skin Deep,” the lyrics of which are particularly poignant in-light of some of the current news making headlines in Chicago. It’s one of those songs that you wish you could play over a giant loudspeaker to try and make people see some sense.
As the night moved towards a close, Earl Slick (long-time David Bowie collaborator) and Sinead O’Connor took to the stage for a cover of the Robert Johnson standard, “Sweet Home Chicago.” O’Conner ad-libbed the lyrics with her voice remaining as huge as it ever was. She stayed on stage for “I’ve Got My Eye On You,” sticking close to Buddy with Slick contributing some great lead and slide guitar.
The show ended on a high with the aforementioned “Whisky, Beer and Wine.” Slick remained on the stage and Tom Hambridge, Buddy’s longtime collaborator, stepped up to sing the final verse and chorus as the main man left the stage and headed to the merch’ stand to sign autographs.
Buddy Guy is, and always was, the real thing. Despite his fame, you get the feeling that he’s still the same boy from Louisiana who would try to play music with pieces of string tied to nails on the wall. All Buddy wanted to do then was play guitar, and it’s all he wants to do now. Throughout the night, he still amazed with his stage presence and his playing that regularly went from whisper quiet, soulful lines one moment to, all out, screaming flurries of notes the next. It truly was a blues masterclass from a man who helped write the book.
Not many people choose to brave a trip to Chicago in January, but if ever there was a reason to head to the Windy City in the depths of winter, seeing a legend perform at his club is it. Just remember to be nice to the staff – they’re his family.