The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Jan 19, 2008

Buddy and the Blues

One autumn in 1995, on a slow evening in Jakarta, I took a break from helping install the world's first large-scale wireless local loop network, and meandered over to the Hard Rock Cafe. It was packed to the hilt with firangs and a few Indonesians, all come to see that masterful bluesman, Buddy Guy.

At the time, my interest in this wonderful genre of music was just at its genesis. My acquaintance with it had been coloured by the blues-inflected heavy rock of the likes of Led Zeppelin and the Yardbirds. The only way I had of telling that a song was in the blues style was by paying attention to its lyrics (ain't got no money, ain't got no shoes... so I gotta sing, these lonesome blues) or to the relentless five-note progression that ran through it.

But Buddy Guy at the time had no patience with rock-tinged blues. In the 1960s, he had been the visionary who introduced loudness and feedback and distortion - pyrotechnics on the axe! He had been ignored by his record label, while the likes of Clapton and Jeff Beck and the Rolling Stones were making millions inspired by his sound. In Jakarta, on that day, he played traditional blues, the original cry of the Mississippi Delta, and then added to the set his own take on the vibrant Chicago sound.

What a showman the man was. He strutted into the audience, jamming away on his guitar. A technician paid out the leads so that he could wander where he willed. He bit the strings making them howl; the guitar imitated his raspy voice; he glided his hands above the frets and the chords roared as though he had touched the frets. He took the hand of a lovely woman and got her to pluck at the strings: she seemed to do so randomly but there was no dissonance, no break in the music.

About year later, I was firmly ensconced in Chicago. What a fabulous, fabulous city! What a superb musical scene! Buddy Guy's Legends was where I lurked, weekend after weekend. Late in the summer, I'd pile on to the free open-air Chicago Blues Festival, soaking in the heat and humidity, listening to the likes of Junior Wells and Guy himself, and enthralling local bands, and Ian Anderson, Clapton once, and even Grandfather B. B. King himself. (I was to follow old Mr King to New Jersey, where he couldn't even stand up, he was so weak, but his music had lost nothing of its power.)

One of the good things about Legends was the mouthwatering Cajun and heart-stopping (you should have seen the fat content) soul food available there. Buddy Guy had grown up in the deep South and never forgot his roots - culinary or musical. So the other good thing about Legends was that he always had the time and the enthusiasm to promote other bluesmen, especially those who were virtuosi but completely out of the public eye. I wish now I had kept the programme sheets for the wonderful acts that fed my soul during my frequent visits. Many of them didn't have discs for sale, concentrating mainly on their live dos. Sadly I have no record now of having listened to them.

During the Blues Festival, though, the atmosphere was much more eclectic. I first got to see the Mighty Blue Kings live on a little stage behind a tent that sold cheap blues labels. These guys, led by the distinctive voice of Ross Bon, had been famed in Chicago circles since the previous year, although they weren't true bluesmen. At the time I gawked at them, they were in their zoot suit phase, playing jump blues, which was much more like swinging jazz, way too upbeat for true blues diehards. Whatever, it was rollicking stuff, and well worth the time.

Kingston Mines and B.L.U.E.S were two other blues hangouts in the Windy City. Legends was already close to the dangerous South Side, where you needed a machine gun to cross a road without getting mugged or raped, but these two bars were firmly in the North Side, safe and popular. Thus, the cognoscenti and the unutterably snobbish (who liked the rush a brush with death gave them) would disdain these joints, and headed, instead, for Lee's Unleaded Blues.

(Okay, I exaggerate the deadliness of the South Side. The wife lived there for years and had an altogether wonderful time. The dorm room of one of her pals was punctured one night by a bullet, but she didn't allow it to deaden her spirit. Plus the University of Chicago studs all hang out in these little known bars, and they are much likelier targets for muggers than a stray desi visitor. Well, that's what I told myself at the time.)

On an occasion that I didn't want to brave the traffic crawling into downtown, I might head the other way, to the 'burbs of Chicagoland, where the out-of-the-way and wholly unlikely Beale Street Blues Cafe nestled amidst insurance vendors in a strip mall in Palatine. Again, local heroes rocked the scene here: people like the Gospel man, Otis Clay (whom I saw only once, though. Far too commercial, I thought. Otis Clay fans, please don't kill me.)

Ah, the blues, the blues. Music by the devil, they called it. Heartfelt and uplifting in its bleak humour, where else would you hear lyrics such as these:
He was a deep sea diver
with a stroke that could not go wrong.
Deep, deep sea, deep sea diver
with a stroke that just could not go wrong.
He could touch the bottom,
and his wind held out so long.

Oh, he boiled my cabbage,
and he made it awful hot,
tsch, tsch, tsch, tsch, tsch, tsch, tsch, mmmm.
He boiled it, I got to tell you
that he made it, made it awful hot.
But when he slipped the bacon in,
he overflowed the pot!
(Bessie Smith, Empty Bed Blues)


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