Sunday, 3 November 2019
Sweet Tea - Buddy Guy
I also have one of the most distant personal connections imaginable. My partner's stepdad's sister married one of Buddy Guy's sons. So, yeah, usual caveats apply when reviewing the work of a close family member.
Review: I pointedly mentioned the electric blues in my introduction, because this is what Guy is most famous for. And on Sweet Tea, fans of his spiky, fluid playing have got more than enough to chew on. Most tracks are over the five minute mark, with 'I Gotta Try You Girl' stretching its legs for well over twelve minutes. You wanna hear some electric guitar, friend? You got it.
So it's strange that the most arresting track on the whole album - the opener, 'Done Got Old' - is a relatively concise three-and-change minutes long, and consists of a close-miked Guy and sparse acoustic guitar. It's a weird song, too - because many of Guy's direct influences would flip their dotage on its head, bragging about their experience or ability to keep up with the youngbloods. Think Muddy Waters with 'Young Fashioned Ways' - "there may be snow up on the mountain, but there's fire down under the hill". 'Done Got Old', however, is a straightforward lament - no braggadocio, machismo or defiance, just a quiet sadness that his body is giving up on him. It's a sombre introduction.
And maybe it's supposed to be the banner that hangs over proceedings, a memento mori to accompany the startlingly vital racket he conjures up on Sweet Tea. 'Baby Please Don't Leave Me' has a title that sounds like a Chess cut from the 1950s, but the clattering drums and skronky overdriven bass makes it sound, early doors, more like a particularly sludgy desert rocker. The guitar riff, when it kicks in, sounds like one of the blues tracks that Led Zeppelin stole, if it was played on high-tensile cables. It's a noise you might expect more from All Them Witches than a guy who literally played with Muddy Waters and Junior Wells.
The highlight of Sweet Tea is 'Stay All Night', another relatively short number. It stalks, it prowls, it rumbles; and a flint-eyed Guy doesn't so much ask for love as commands it. It's down-low and nasty, lower than a snake's belly. At this juncture, I should mention that, aside from the quavering opener, Guy sings wonderfully, with a similarly strained, edgy style as Elmore James, albeit dialled down a notch or two. He was still hitting some impressive high notes at the age most people this side of the Atlantic anticipate receiving free bus passes.
Production is a factor that can make or break a record. As much as I love the bells and whistles approach on albums by the Beatles, Jellyfish, Pink Floyd and other studio cosmonauts, most blues music is served by the KISS maxim; keep it simple, stupid. Going back to Chess, some of those Muddy joints are raw as hell; there's a 1951 cut called 'She Moves Me' where Leonard Chess himself provides inexpert but effective backing on a bass drum to accompany Mud's elastic guitar. Back in the twenty-first century, Dennis Herring has kept some of that magic alive, whilst compensating for advances in technology. You can hear amps humming, snares rattling and the odd clam or two from Guy. It doesn't matter; this is more about capturing a mood and a moment than technical ecstasy (Joe Bonamassa and Kevin Shirley, take note). To these untrained ears, it also sounds like the instrumentals were performed live-in-studio.
The overall effect is very in-your-face, and all the better for it. The guitar isn't overly processed; a dab of echo here and there, but otherwise letting an overdriven tube amp, and of course Guy's expert fingers, do the heavy lifting tone-wise. On 'Tramp', cleaving the old soul classic with an arrangement that sounds like ZZ Top circa the kooky Deguello, Guy bends those strings so aggressively you can hear the muscle and blood through the speaker; the same can be said for the portentous closer 'It's A Jungle Out There'. Meanwhile, on 'Look What All You Got' and 'Who's Been Foolin' You', it sounds like Buddy Guy is fronting Dr Feelgood. It's a genuine pleasure to hear the greatest living exponent of the Chicago blues reminding us all why Clapton, Richards, Beck and the rest bend the knee.
I hear two Kings in the way Guy plays; he's got the pyrotechnic flair of Freddie but hits his bends like Albert (a fellow who, at his best, sounded like he was bending the very molecules of existence). There's something else there, though - a simmering malevolence that gives his every solo or interpolation that bit more bite and excitement. Perhaps 'Done Got Old' was a trickster move, a little juke to throw us off guard before proving, over and over, that he's still got the fire burning down below.