“I was born in Louisiana, and at the age of two, my mama told ,my papa, our little boys got the blues…” And so begins ‘born to play guitar’, the latest (and 29th) album from that doyen of the blues, Buddy Guy. At 79 you’d forgive Buddy for showing signs of slowing down but if that is his intention, there is absolutely no evidence of it here. Indeed, ‘born to play guitar’ offers an even more concise and thrilling experience than the impressive ‘Rhythm and blues’ double set released back in 2013, and it perfectly captures the energy and humour that Buddy so effortlessly exudes on stage.
Kicking off with the autobiographical title track, Buddy plays the blues with a twinkle in his eye and it’s impossible to supress a smile as he asserts “everybody knows my name – Buddy Guy that is!” even whilst you acknowledge the truth of it. ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons turns up next on the stinging ‘wear you out’ with both artists declaring their intention to be the last man standing as they trade licks. A hard rocker with some blistering solos, you can see exactly why the likes of Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page idolise the man, and there’s no doubt that if you played this to some unwitting soul, they’d never guess that the protagonist was just shy of his eight decade. Taking things down a notch, ‘back up mama’ has a Delta blues feel and some typically gnarled solos, whilst Kim Wilson appears for the swinging ‘too late’, a storming number that still manages to pale in comparison to the gritty ‘whiskey, beer and wine’, an album highlight that offers some cracking riffs and a powerful vocal from Buddy who seems to enjoy the life of a touring musician as much as ever. Of course the exceptional soloing is a given, but even so the fret work on ‘whiskey beer and wine’ is particularly impressive, Buddy tearing at his guitar with white hot skill and potency. The humour is back for ‘kiss me quick’ and you can picture Buddy’s smile as he yelps out the song’s title over a thunderous blues riff and wailing harmonica. In contrast, ‘crying out of one eye’ is a devastating slow blues number complete with soulful horns and some truly elegiac soloing.
Having calmed things down with the beautiful ‘crying out of one eye’ we get the stunning duet with Joss Stone, ‘(baby) you got what it takes’, in which Joss provides a perfectly soulful foil for Buddy’s lascivious bluesman. Both charming and funny, ‘turn me wild’ informs us that the young Buddy stayed straight thanks to a broomstick his momma kept next to the bed that “wasn’t for sweepin’!” only for the blues to send him wrong later in life. In contrast ‘Crazy world’ is a beautifully contemplative piece that sees Buddy digging deep to deliver some of his most poignant work as he reflects on a world that has changed beyond recognition over the course of his lifetime. Kicking out the album’s baddest jam with distorted vocals and some gnarly slide, ‘smarter than I was’ is Buddy on his fieriest form whilst ‘Thick like Mississippi mud’ is an absolute belter, complete with soulful banks of brass and typically wonderful solos. Taking a more solemn turn, the album ends with a pair of tributes to fallen friends. The first of these is ‘Flesh and bone’, a track which features the unmistakable tones of Van Morrison, and which is dedicated to the late, great B. B. King, the loss of whom must have come as a terrible shock to Buddy. It’s a beautiful tribute, heartfelt and passionate, and it’s hard not to share the sweet sorrow of B. B’s loss with Buddy. The album closes with ‘Come back Muddy’, a tribute to another friend whose apparent last words to Buddy were to “keep the damn blues alive!” a task that Buddy has set to with a will over the years.
Buddy guy, you could argue, has no need to continue playing in a commercial sense, and of course he does not. Buddy Guy is playing because he’s an artist, as unable to stop playing as the rest of us are unable to stop breathing. He’s a genuine treasure, an exceptionally talented imp who plays with fire in his fingertips and a twinkle in his eye and this recording captures both his humour and his talent with wonderful clarity. Produced by Tom Hambridge (who’s worked with Buddy before on ‘skin deep’ and ‘living proof’), the album captures all facets of Buddy’s sound from fluid grace (on songs like ‘flesh and bone’) to the gnarled, gritty solos that Buddy likes to tear out just to remind the modern generation of rock stars from whence they came. Overall what comes across most forcefully is the spirit that has made Buddy Guy such a force over the years. Largely autobiographical, the album digs deep into Buddy’s life story and provides a beautifully varied soundtrack to it. B.B. King once said of Eric Clapton “May I live forever, but may you live forever and a day, because I’d to be here when you pass away” and it’s a sentiment I’d like to echo in favour of Buddy Guy. The blues is more interesting, more fiery and more fun with him in it, and I can’t (or perhaps don’t want to) imagine the genre without him.