SWEET TEA - Buddy Guy (Silvertone)

I wrote a piece inspired by this album for the First Church of Holy Rock'n'Roll after hearing it once in a store, which wound up being more of a rumination on Buddy's classic Chess sides than a true review of the rec in question, but since then I've acquired a copy and have been listening to it obsessively (along with the Celibate Rifles' albums from "Blind Ear" through "Spaceman in a Satin Suit" and the remastered BOC "Tyranny and Mutation") for over a week now, and Bro. Craig said it'd be cool, even tho this ain't generally a BLUES bar per se, so I figured I'd take another shot at it...

"Well I done got old/I can't do the things I used to do/'Cos I'm an old man...." So begins "Done Got Old," the first track on "Sweet Tea." A sentiment I can relate to better every year, it seems, but who's it coming from? Why, none other than Buddy Guy, Chicago's wild man of the blues, last of the great fifties and sixties urban blues guitarists left standing (well, OK, we've still got B.B. King, but he's more of an, uh, elder statesman, almost MOR, kinda like Eric Clapton or something, and Otis Rush is still kicking around, if you can find him, but it's the exceptions that prove the rule). The most idiosyncratic of the pack, Buddy directly inspired everything good in the original classic Rod Stewart-fronted edition of the Jeff Beck Group (my touchstone as far as gtr is concerned), went most of the eighties without having any records at all available Stateside, then came roaring back in 1991 with "Damn Right I've Got the Blues," which both revived his career and kinda pigeonholed him for awhile in a slick, rocked-up, Stevie Vaughan-inspired bag, the absolute nadir of which was the live album he recorded with, uh, G.E. Smith and the Saturday Night Live band (and why the FUCK would Buddy Guy record "Mustang Sally," unless it was so hack barbands all over the States could cop his arrangement of a toon they'd already played to death 20 yrs ago or more?)

Two '90s developments made it worthwhile listening to blues again, even for someone as jaded as myself, who teethed on Muddy, Wolf, Walter, Hooker, B.B., et. al. as a teenager, then went a good long time without listening to any of the music at all, 'cos besides providing a really dimensional form for playing, it just ain't that inspahring a listening experience all the time (how many times can YOU lose your baby?). The first was the advent of a new generation of young brothers extending the legacy of Robert Johnson into a viable form for the 21st Century; I call 'em "the sons of Taj Mahal." I'm talking about the likes of Keb Mo' (who sometimes almost veers into pop territory, but can be forgiven for the sheer joy of his live performances), the eclectic multi-instrumentalist Alvin Youngblood Hart, and Corey Harris (whom I once saw opening for Taj at Caravan of Dreams, reminding us all that country blues started out as DANCE MUSIC as he slapped and popped away at a Robert Johnson toon on his Parker Fly).

The second was the emergence of the Fat Possum label out of Oxford, Mississippi, dedicated to recording primarily electrified country bluesmen out of Northern Mississippi (including Deniz Tek fave CeDell Davis, R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, T-Model Ford, and Frank Frost's Jelly Roll Kings) whose sound and vibe was characterized by roughness, rawness, raucousness, alcoholism, profanity, and authentic-sounding dementia. These guys sounded like the modern-day descendents of Sonny Boy Williamson and Howlin' Wolf in their West Memphis days, except REALLY PISSED OFF. R.L.'s "Ass Pocket of Whiskey" album (backed by the, uh, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in the manner of Sonny Boy with the Yardbirds or Hooker with Canned Heat) broke this music with the U.S. punk audience (surely the fedora, shades, and soul-patch jive Blues Brothers/Stevie Ray Vaughan claque wasn't lining up to hear this?). As Chet from the Immortal Lee County Killers sez, "Buy all the Fat Possum records you can!"

What makes this album a surprise is that it was actually recorded at Sweet Tea studios in Oxford (where he's undoubtedly the most adept instrumentalist ever to have set foot), where all the Fat Possum artists cut, and consists largely of covers from their repertoire (exceptions are Lowell Fulson's venerable "Tramp," in maybe its greatest incarnation ever, and the closing original). A producer's ploy or an artist's daring leap? YOU decide!!! Perhaps the passing of his long-standing cohort Junior Wells (whose classic "Hoodoo Man Blues" with Buddy you must hear) back in '97 has Buddy thinking about things differently, but this was a courageous album for Buddy to make, and I'll be curious to see how it plays with his recordbuying public and affects his future releases (of course, he's currently booked on a stadium tour with B.B. King, so maybe it's just a fluke, but what a glorious fluke).

If you're not a blues fan, don't think of this as a blues album - think of it as doomy, lumbering, menacing swamp rock. The band (featuring a buncha whiteboys and T-Model Ford's drummer Spam - whether he's named after the canned meat or the e-mail annoyance is anybody's guess) eschews flash for a no-frills, groove-heavy approach, leaving Buddy free to extemporize freely over the top, which he does with abandon. I've never liked the saturated tone he's adopted on his Silvertone releases, but here, it just FITS. (His classic, clean-Fender tone reappears on the last coupla tracks, while the opener reprises the stripped-down acoustic sound of Muddy Waters' "Folk Singer" album, only this time Buddy's singing and laying down the Delta-dirty groove, rather than just providing single-string ornamentation.) Buddy's timing has always been a little questionable - generating excitement with time-breaking flurries of notes behind a vocal, then playing a just a couple when it's his time to solo (and Geoff Ginsberg claims he NEVER finishes a song live, which I wouldn't know about, 'cos everytime he plays in Fort Worth, it's sixty bucks a head to get in, and while he's definitely my fave gtrist, there's no way I can afford that kind of scratch for ANYBODY'S gig), but here he's spot-on all the way. A moody, spacey vibe prevails - the guy who played it for me in the store said, "It's almost like a blues 'Piper at the Gates of Dawn'." You might think I'm insane, but there are parts of this that remind me of Lou Reed's "New York" and "Ecstasy" when the gtrs on those had THE LOCK and were really churning. (Except of course Buddy's about a thousand times the singer that Lou is, and a quarter the lyricist.) But comparisons suck; listen yourself and be amazed.

Buddy Guy is undoubtedly the greatest gtr player in his genre; in fact, I'd put him up there with freeblow jazz marvel Sonny Sharrock (RIP), Jeff Beck, and Wayne Kramer among my all-time faves. This is the greatest ALBUM of his career (although I'm still partial to those Chess sides, which have been anthologized a number of different ways). If you dig powerful music of gut-wrenching emotional intensity, you should try taste "Sweet Tea." - Ken Shimamoto

 


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