Of all the still-living bluesmen whose careers were firmly established before the likes of Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, etc. came along in the mid and late '60s, the knock on Buddy Guy is that live, he is the most inconsistent. Conventional concert wisdom says an evening with Guy can either set your hair on fire or be a hand-wringing (not to mention wallet-wringing) exercise in watching someone who ought to know better go through the motions.
Aftermath has seen both sides of Guy in the past, and Sunday night at House of Blues the more-or-less full house got a little bit of both. Yes, there was a Cosby-esque amount of mugging and a standup-comic level of interaction with the crowd. Good and bad: He stopped Muddy Waters' "Hoochie Coochie Man" early in to advise someone down front to "Shut the fuck up a minute, man," but also mentioned more than once how, since he's already got a bunch of family here, he "just might" move to Houston.
"One thing I'm afraid of, though," he said. "Is that if I moved here, you'd get tired of me."
Not necessarily. Guy also delivered his share of scorching solos, in both chord-splattering geysers and painstaking note-by-note miniature tone poems. And he showed that, when it comes to massaging the dynamics of the blues, he can translate the music's soul-flaying emotion into a whisper or a scream. And, moreover, that he might be the best there is when it comes to that.
Guy didn't skimp on the heavy stuff, his Telecaster mastery on "Love Her With a Feeling" spurred on (and, once or twice, upstaged) by understudy and second guitarist Ray Powell and the excellent backing band (keys, bass, drums). During a mini-clinic of his friends and inspirations - not counting Waters, whose "Hoochie Coochie Man" was sly and sexual - John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom Boom Boom" came in slashing chords and lurching rhythms, while Cream's "Strange Brew" was ghostly and almost falsetto, Guy taking on the countenance of a wise but impish old bird.
Despite a "Damn Right I've Got the Blues" that spewed serious electric mud (yes, as in Waters) as he walked the floor of the room, Guy's slower numbers were if anything, even more effective and affecting, heavily infiltrated by the harmonies of soul and gospel music. On both "Feels Like Rain" and the autobiographical title track to his latest CD, Skin Deep, a catch crept into his voice as he delivered the obviously painful lyrics - "Skin Deep," for one, begins with a man from the Lousiana of Guy's childhood addressing him as "boy" - that was impossible to fake.
Aftermath also learned one more important thing Sunday: However good your intentions may be, do not yell at Guy to "Play the blues!" Unfortunately, shortly before a choice, teasing cover of Peggy Lee's "Fever," one poor audience member did not know this.
"What the fuck do you think I've been doing all night?" Guy replied. He wasn't wrong.