Five minutes into guitarist Buddy Guy's blistering 90-minute show at Toad's Place, it was clear the packed house was in the presence of royalty. Those who have already witnessed a Guy concert know the man never dials in a performance, preferring to remain on top of his game every nighta pretty good definition of a living legend. It's why, at 71 years of age, many consider him the greatest electric blues guitarist alive.
After a funky opener of "Mary Had A Little Lamb," Guy slowed things down with a stirring rendition of Muddy Waters' "Hoochie Coochie Man" into "Hoodoo Man Blues" (from the quintessential release by Junior Wells) while his steady four-piece band laid a hypnotic backbeat. Wearing a polka dotted shirt and white derby hat backward, Guy carefully began shaping the first of many raggedly soulful vocal performances that night, and the rapt crowd filled in certain verses. But when the audience muddled one line, Guy stopped the music.
"Some people get mad when I say this," he started. "But I'm not gonna let you f--k this song up."
Guy began the song over, and the crowd fell in step for the rest of the sweltering evening. Coming out of the gate strong with resonant classics, the veteran entertainer seemed to be pulling out all his performance tricks, from lengthy solos using one hand to tapping notes with a drumstick, and perhaps most impressively, wading deep into the crowd on several occasions, even walking upstairs while singing and playing, never missing a beat. When Guy plays his signature yellow Stratocaster, it's like a passionate conversation is laid bare. Few guitarists (Hendrix comes to mind) have ever wielded such a muscular, fat tone that marks every song with instant emotion, one solo tearfully pleading while another monstrously shouts, demanding respect. Bending strings like putty, he is a master at sudden shifts in mood, often catching the audience off guard.
Guy traded licks with another young guitarist, Ric Hall, who displayed impressive speed and dexterity, but it was the headliner's veteran poise in demand. His most entertaining musical interaction seemed to come with funky pianist Marty Sammon while the two shared a smoldering solo on an old cover of the classic Eddie Cooley/Otis Blackwell standard, "Fever," which ranked with the best versions of that song I've heard (and I've seen the late, great jazz singer Shirley Horn burn it down at Yoshi's in Oakland).
Indeed, Guy held the crowd in his palms all night. There wasn't much room for anyone to maneuver but flat TV video screens were hung everywhere and smaller members of the audience could glimpse the action simply by looking up. Maybe it was partly because alcohol was not being sold, but there was minimal noise or talking in the crowd. Of course, Guy seemed to relish the attention on his every note.
"I like this. I might have to move to Richmond," he said.
The latter parts of the show weren't as exhilarating as the first half. Guy unleashed a late-set medley of abrupt covers from the likes of Marvin Gaye and Ray Charles (an acoustic "What'd I Say") that were playfull, but felt abbreviated. One of the best covers came while he was weaving through the crowd and suddenly decided on a tune from buddy Eric Clapton, a scintillating version of Cream's "Strange Brew" with Guy owning the song through his sultry, falsetto vocal.
The constant all night was Guy's improvisational skills and masterful showmanship; he maintained his hammy repoire with a crowd filled mostly by older white guys, some shouting exhortations like nerdy professors, or more likely, record geeks.
Around 10 o'clock the set ended to resounding applause, but there would be no encore. Nevertheless it's impossible to be let down when you've just witnessed an elderly legend playing with the energy and conviction of a man half his age. Guy appears to have found the fountain of the youth in the bluesor maybe there's voodoo involved. -Brent Baldwin