Preaching the Blues

Good blues is like a good sermon. It lifts you up when you’re down, comforts you when you’re hurting, heals you when you’re in pain, tells you when you’ve done somebody wrong. And a good blues musician, like a good preacher, feeds off the energy of the audience, and returns it in the message—the music. As a result, live recordings are almost always better than studio recordings.

Two recent recordings are a real treat, each highlighting a blues musician instrumental in moving the music from where they inherited it to a higher level: They learned from what they heard, added their own creative genius, and passed it on better than they found it.

The Real Deal, by Buddy Guy with G.E. Smith and the Saturday Night Live Band, is an affirmation of four decades of Guy’s work. Born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, now a longtime resident of Chicago, Guy is a major figure in the blues world.

Recorded live at his club, Legends, in Chicago in May 1994, the set ranges from "First Time I Met the Blues"—Buddy’s first Chess single in 1964—to a rousing finale of Willie Dixon’s "Let Me Love You Baby." For classic Buddy Guy guitar playing, the title song of his 1991 Grammy-winning recording, "Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues," can’t be beat. The recording also includes a slow, melodic love song, "Sweet Black Angel," and a rousing cover of Elmore James’ "Talk to Me Baby."

The nine songs are a well-chosen set that shows all of Guy’s stylings and moods. It’s a taste of Guy’s lead guitar playing—descending chord progressions and soaring runs combined with his growling, shouting vocals. The live recording captures his interaction with the audience—Guy shouting "I’ve got the blues, can I keep on going?" with an enthusiastic audience responding.

The Saturday Night Live Band provides solid backup, with Smith trading leads on several songs. Guy ends the set by proclaiming "You know, you make me feel good." Listening to it makes me feel good.

ALSO RECENTLY released is A Tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan, featuring a constellation of blues guitarists gathered together for the first time since the last concert of Stevie’s life in August 1990. Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, and Jimmie Vaughan shared that last concert in Alpine Valley, Wisconsin. They are here joined by B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, Art Neville, and Dr. John in a concert recorded live in Austin, Texas, in May 1995.

Stevie Ray Vaughan was a rare talent who seemed to be in touch with a powerful energy that made him one of the most creative musicians of a generation. Taking his cues from both the blues and Jimi Hendrix rock, he melded a synthesis all his own. Only three years after his recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, he was killed in a helicopter crash following a concert.

In this tribute concert, Raitt, Vaughan, King, Guy, Clapton, Cray, and John present their renditions of SRV classics. Particularly special are Raitt’s performance of "Pride and Joy," in which, by changing the pronouns from "he" to "she," she turns the song into a love poem to Stevie backed by her fluid slide guitar; and Guy’s "Long Way From Home," which he transforms from an upbeat rocker to a slow, almost ominous, blues. Jimmie Vaughan’s "Texas Flood"—Stevie’s signature song—and Robert Cray’s "Love Struck Baby" are among the other highlights.

The emotional heart of the show comes when the musicians join together in "Six Strings Down," Art Neville and Jimmie Vaughan’s tribute to Stevie. As Jimmie closes his eyes and sings the opening words ("Alpine Valley in the middle of the night/six strings down/ on the heaven-bound flight/got a pick, a strap, guitar on his back/ain’t gonna cut the angels no slack/heaven done called another blues stringer back home"), Stevie’s presence is there, watching and approving. Jimmie later said, "We all felt it. A really special moment passed between us."

When the planned and rehearsed set was over, none of the musicians were ready to stop. Jimmie kicked off an opening line, to which B.B. King responded, and the group was off on a 10-minute unrehearsed jam later titled "SRV Shuffle." Three generations of blues greats, stepping out to lead, falling back to answer, this song is a textbook story of the blues. The tune finally ends when, going around the circle, each guitarist offers a solo statement. The interplay of these guitarists pouring out their memories and love is one of the special moments in blues history.

Both of these recordings are high on my playlist. They affirm that the blues is alive and well, and that there are still new levels to which it can be taken.

The Real Deal. By Buddy Guy with G.E. Smith and the Saturday Night Live Band. Silvertone, 1996.

A Tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan. By various artists. Epic, 1996.

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