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Issue 1084

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Buddy Guy & Quinn Sullivan: Symphony Hall, Birmingham 1/7/16

Buddy Guy photo copyright: Simon Redley
Buddy Guy photo copyright: Simon Redley Buddy Guy photo copyright: Simon Redley Buddy Guy photo copyright: Simon Redley Buddy Guy photo copyright: Simon Redley Buddy Guy photo copyright: Simon Redley Buddy Guy photo copyright: Simon Redley Quinn Sullivan photo copyright: Simon Redley Buddy Guy photo copyright: Simon Redley Buddy Guy at Symphony Hall Birmingham. Photo copyright: Simon Redley Buddy Guy at Symphony Hall Birmingham. Photo copyright: Simon Redley

When BB King left us just over a year ago at 89-years-old, he passed on the blues baton to sole survivor of the US blues originators; Mr Buddy Guy. 80-years-old this month (July), Buddy was back in the UK for the first time in a good few years, to play just three shows in Glasgow, Birmingham and London. I caught up with him at Symphony Hall, Birmingham on July 1st and he was in fine form.

His young US protégé Quinn Sullivan played a blistering opening set, invited back to play the last third of Buddy’s set with his mentor, and he really held his own. Now 17, he first played with Buddy aged seven and has been under his wing ever since. Full of praise for the blues wunderkid when I interviewed Buddy last year.
Buddy’s guitar skills were fully in tact, and apart from a little extra vibrato, his vocals were amazing for a man of his age. He was chatting in between songs about his career in Chicago, from the early days of working with Muddy, Wolf and co.

Buddy came out into the audience playing guitar with the house lights up, and singing into a radio mike, his trademark crowd winning move at his concerts. A seven-time Grammy winner, he played a clutch of tracks from his current album, “Born To Play Guitar,” produced by the legendary Tom Hambridge. Tom played drums for Quinn Sullivan and came on to sing harmonies with Buddy for a few songs in his set. Buddy reminisced about the artists and songs around back in the day, “when I was paid weekly…very weakly,” he quipped. He bemoaned US radio not playing the blues any more, and sang brief snippets of many vintage songs from John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf to a fantastic soulful snatch of Marvin Gaye’s “Ain't That Peculiar.”

A glorious 100 minutes of Buddy, his crack band, future blues star Quinn Sullivan; a rare and probable final chance to see and hear this true blues great in action over here. Special mention to the sound guys and to the world class acoustics of the venue, Symphony Hall - the perfect sound added tremendous value to the expereience. Buddy Guy, the recipient of the 2015 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Buddy Guy’s incredible career spans over 50 years, with just as many albums released. Career highlights include six Grammy Awards, 35 Blues Music Awards, Kennedy Center Honors, Billboard Music Awards’ Century Award for distinguished artistic development, Presidential National Medal of Arts, and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to name just a few of his accolades.. Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and many others cite BG as one of their main influences. But when I last spoke to him, Buddy told me he was nothing special: “Just another regular guy blessed by God to be able to play the guitar well enough for someone else to listen to.”

The sold out all seated Symphony Hall audience were treated to his protégé’s sizzling set to open proceedings tonight. Quinn’s eight song set paid tribute to his mentor on the penultimate cut, “Buddy’s Blues” and nodded to one of his heroes and obvious influences, Jimi Hendrix four songs in, with a very passable version of the done to death, “Little Wing.” Quinn opened with the aptly titled “Stepping Out,” and second song, “Getting There", another metaphor perhaps. Most punters stayed in their seats for his entire set. A talented young guitarist with fire in his belly, and big potential. His vocal is OK and one assumes will strengthen as he gets older and more experience, but he badly needs songs. The material was pretty forgettable.

But everyone is here to see THE man. The last man standing. When BB left us just over a year ago he told his old friend not to let the blues die. Buddy doesn’t not wear that responsibility lightly. Notching up his 80th year on the planet a week just after his three shows in London, Glasgow and Birmingham. He’s not been on these shores for a good a few years and at 80, his 2016 trip may well be the last time we see him in the UK. Hopefully not. He kicks off with “Damn Right I've Got the Blues,” the title track to his best selling album from 1991. No trademark polka dot covered guitar tonight, which is the first time of maybe half a dozen times I have seen him that he has not played the black and white dotted axe. He did have a polka dot wireless mike and subtle dots on his shimmering shirt material though.

Another Buddy Guy trademark is his stroll through the audience while playing guitar mid song leaving the band playing away on stage. A minder hands him a radio mime and he stops playing guitar and has a chat with the audience while the cameras come out. He plays a little bit and then disappears out of the doors and re-appears back on stage. Never missed a note, a gimmick he has done for years. He places his guitar flat on top of the PA stack on the left hand side of the stage as he walks back on, still plugged in and plays it with a drum stick, gets some feed back he dampens with a towel thrown on top of the strings, picks up the guitar and leaves the towel hanging over the neck of the guitar. He has a stool stage front and sits on it, cradling his guitar like a baby. Towel still on the neck. He sings off the mike and some drunken moron sat near me who has been yelling out all night, shouts out: “Play that guitar Buddy.” Buddy looks up, stops and says: “What the fuck do you think I have been doing.” Loud cheers and drunken fan eventually gets told to be quiet by one of the stewards. He obliges but not before he yells out “Junior Wells,” to Buddy who is playing little snippets of his heroes, friends and influences like Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf and John Lee Hooker. Buddy snaps back: “He’s dead.”

Buddy tells us how just before each of the big blues legends died – such as Muddy and Howling Wolf - they tell the others who are left “don’t let the fucking blues die.” He spoke of not learning to play guitar from a book, and how he had not ever seen running water until he was 17 years old. He gives us a superb snatch of “Boom Boom,” the John Lee Hooker classic, and as he is handed a different guitar, he tells us his mother never lived to see him play on a stage and he was sad about that. He said he was telling his producer Tom Hambridge these stories from his childhood and how he used to comb his hair in a broken mirror in the sunshine at nine years old, and tell his Momma; “I am good looking, ain’t I?” How she would reply, “It is only skin deep son.” Tom urging him to write this stuff down, “Man that’s a song there.” He starts off a lovely slow blues inspired by from that childhood story called, “Skin Deep.” Tom coming on to sing backing vocals and harmonies with Buddy on the song. Some sweet falsetto from Buddy. It reminded me of the gospel soul of The Holmes Brothers.

During the show, Buddy asks us: “Is it too loud?” Nooo, turn it up Buddy, shouts someone from the balcony. “I ask because sometimes they tell me it is too fucking loud. But shit, tonight I am gonna get it on,” he promises. Telling us, “I was in this town in 1965.” He did use the F word and S*hit a fair bit, no issue with a mainly mature audience tonight. There have been complaints at US festivals where kids are in the crowd about his language, but not tonight.

His guitar went out of tune around the end of the first song in the set, and slowly got worse and was badly out by song four or five. But he swapped to a different guitar and his guitar tech’ must have got the other one back in tune before he played it again later. He talked a lot between songs, and stopped songs short to carry on chatting. Often thinking of an old song he remembered from his childhood or the early days of playing, either singing them a Capella or starting it off and the band gingerly coming in on a song they clearly had no idea he was going to include. He wandered over to the organist very early in the set, on song two or three and said: “Just watch me,” and began a duel with organ and guitar. “We didn’t rehearse this bit,” he told us. I think he likes to keep his band on their toes!

The set list looked like this: Damn Right I've Got the Blues, Have You Ever Been Mistreated, I Just Want to Make Love to You, Fever, Born to Play Guitar (where he was bending the strings like Albert King, and giving us sublime blues licks a la Freddie King and the attack of Albert Collins.) Thick Like Mississippi Mud, Slippin' In (title track of his 2010 album). Boom Boom, Strange Brew, Voodoo Child (Slight Return) and Sunshine of Your Love. There were a few short snatches of other songs too, and the previously mentioned, “Skin Deep,” the title cut of his 2008 album which featured The Memphis Horns, Willie Mitchell, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Eric Clapton, Robert Randolph and Quinn Sullivan.

His protégé Quinn is called back on stage after Buddy had given us 75 minutes of the finest blues. Buddy telling us he met him when he was seven years old at one of Buddy’s shows, and asked him “Can you play,” and young Quinn replied, “Yeah, I can play,” to this blues giant. Buddy invites him on stage and didn’t expect what he heard. He knew then this kid was special. “He didn’t get excited, he just said, I can play.” Quinn holds his own next to Buddy tonight, and you can tell there is mutual admiration going on up there - teacher and pupil in action. Quinn takes the spotlight and Buddy steps behind him to play rhythm guitar while the youngster goes for it. Buddy grinning as Quinn really nails it. Further to his revelation that BB King and those before him told Buddy not to let the blues die, he looked at Quinn, pointed and told us proudly; “I give it to him.”

Buddy tells us the blues players in the USA did not get paid much back in the day, “I got paid weekly, very weakly,” he quipped. He said they were not treated very well until us Brits got into the blues and brought them over here where they were treated like Royalty. He said the same thing happened to Jimi Hendrix, who cited Buddy as his main influence. “I came here and you loved me.” Buddy pointed across the stage to his young discovery and tells us: “I want the word out about him and I want him to have an album out, as soon as possible. I said to Quinn when he was seven; so you can play Jimi…….” and the band, Quinn and Buddy rip into “Voodoo Chile”………….. “I said so you can play Eric….” and they tear into Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love.” Buddy tells us what a cheeky seven year old Quinn told this blues master when asked if he could play like Eric and Jimi: “Try me!”

Buddy pays tribute to “the greatest blues player that ever lived,” Mr BB King: “He left us, but he lefts us with this…” and the band drop the volume and Buddy plays softly, sings sweetly and quietly on the opening bars of BB’s “Sweet Sixteen.”: “When I first met you baby, you were just sweet sixteen…” Sincere homage to his greatly missed friend Riley B King.

Buddy introduces us to his band on piano and organ, drums and bass plus Quinn Sullivan and Tom Hambridge. He speaks about the Chicago music scene 60 years ago and then Detroit and Motown. He talks about the songs on the juke boxes in the clubs and bars at that time, and launches into brief snippets of vintage songs from John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf to a fantastic soulful snatch of Marvin Gaye’s “Aint That Peculiar,” with some stunning and controlled falsetto. He leaves the stage to thunderous applause and a standing ovation, while his band jams to Ray Charles’ “What I’d Say,” Buddy throwing plectrums to fans who rush the front of the stage to shake his hand.Buddy comes back to finish off with the fun “Meet Me In Chicago,” Tom Hambridge on harmony vocals again and Quinn on guitar. Buddy without a guitar strapped to his chest for the first time tonight. 10.17pm and he’s gone. The house lights go up but the band ain’t finished yet, and they sneak in another three minute jam on a Santana vibe, with young Quinn showboating. Buddy by now in his dressing room taking a well earned rest.

The last of the living blues legends, in the flesh; “giving it to you while I still can.” He sure can and he sure did. What a Guy………..

All photos copyright: Simon Redley
Words SIMON REDLEY

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