Buddy Guy is a living legend and blues badass who continues to sing and play with energy men half his age would envy. That passion and enthusiasm can be heard throughout the 75-year old Guy's latest album, Rhythm & Blues. He plays with the ferocity that has been his trademark since the moment he found producers and labels willing to allow him to unleash it all. His voice has lost a little in the way of dynamics but there is still plenty of muscle for intense howls.
His career renaissance began with Damn Right, I've Got The Blues and with few exceptions -- Sweet Tea, Blues Singer --he's been remaking that same album with only slight variations: rock-blues records heavy on volume and guest stars. Now, I'm in the tank for the man, having seen him receive his Lifetime Achievement Award at the Blues Music Awards, sweep the 2011 BMAs with his Living Proof record, and play Ryman Auditorium with B.B. King so I still find a highlight or two on each of these records courtesy of Guy's warmth and talent but the records don't satisfy completely.
We once again have the bevy guest stars on Rhythm & Blues -- Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, and Brad Whitford of Aerosmith, Gary Clark Jr., Keith Urban, Beth Hart, and Kid Rock -- and the additional conceit of a "Rhythm" disc and a "Blues" disc. This all played into the familiar so I knew what to expect and yet I was still disappointed after the first listen.
I kept listening, though, and somewhere along the way I changed my mind about Rhythm & Blues. Oh, it's still too loud and the implied focus on both rhythm and blues is largely a misnomer as the sound is more rock-blues than anything else. The guests are more often a distraction than an asset (and I can't even talk about Kid Rock's assault on the Buddy and Junior Wells' classic "Messin' With The Kid" without my blood pressure skyrocketing into the stratosphere) but the more I listened, the less I cared about any of that. I stopped listening as a critic and allowed myself to hear the music and I found myself smiling again.
Beginning first with the Rhythm disc, "Whiskey Ghost" stands apart being easily the quietest song on the record and built on a framework taking Guy back to his Louisiana roots, something rare in his solo work. "The Devil's Daughter" borrows some of that voodoo spirit thematically and plays more to the Rhythm concept than other tunes on this first disc. "Go By Feel" borrows a lot from B.B. King's classic "The Thrill Is Gone" but retains enough identity to stand alone. "What's Up With That Woman" borrows from his "Damn Right, I've Got The Blues" structurally but the strut and groove still sound good.
As to the Blues side, "I Could Die Happy" is a highlight giving us some electric lead over an acoustic rhythm. If you listen carefully to "I Came Up Hard," you can hear some rhythm playing with strong shades of Guy's work on Junior Wells' Hall of Fame classic Hoodoo Man Blues, an album where Guy played through a Leslie organ amp when his guitar amp broke. It was an accidental sonic discovery and one many tried replicating without realizing its unintentional origins. The duet with Gary Clark Jr. is a fun pairing and not just because I love them both (but that doesn't hurt). "Blues Don't Care" works because there is an easy chemistry between master and student.
Rhythm & Blues has its flaws but Buddy Guy remains a classic whose music warms and makes me smile. I'll continue to hope he makes at least one more truly great album and until then, I'll enjoy the magic for as long as he's here to make it.