Pontiff Of The Blues: Buddy Guy’s 80th

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The line to get in slung around the venue’s building, all the way down the block. They came from Massachusetts and Virginia, Minnesota and the Northwest suburbs; the people up-front had been waiting four to six hours, and the only ones waiting who seemed to be first-timers were young. A usual sight for any concert, except that this was something else: a birthday celebration for one of the greatest bluesmen to ever live, sure, but also an elegy for a musical universe in which it increasingly seems as though he is the center, if for no other reason than he is the brightest star not to burn out yet.

crowd

“He’s the last of ’em, really,” said Geoff Miller, who was visiting Chicago from Boston with his wife Lynn. They had been waiting since noon; Geoff had flown to Chicago several times for business, but had never had a chance to see any of the January or Blues Fest shows, to say nothing of seeing Buddy Guy on his birthday.

They were a few spots behind Dave Smith, who was wearing an autographed t-shirt from 2010 and was in from Minneapolis with his wife, also. They couldn’t even remember how long they’d been in line; they guessed four hours. Apparently Guy travels to the Twin Cities quite a bit, but they’d only seen him in Chicago; five times, in fact. They were all January shows except for this one.

Smith put Buddy’s place in blues more bluntly: “He’s the Godfather as far as I’m concerned.”

Naturally, the uniform of the consignetti is white polka dots on a black background, which adorned shirts, dresses, and peak lapel jackets, even the label on Buddy Brew, Guy’s beer imprint. It comes from a promise he made to his mother Isabell to buy her a polka dot Cadillac when he got famous. She passed away before he left Louisiana, so he used the design on his guitar as tribute. Like Buddy’s music, once you notice them, they’re everywhere.

polka dot

At the old club, down the block at 754 S. Wabash, Scott and Sarah Peditrin saw Guy four times. In from Lombard, it was their first time coming to the new club, which much have been a shock. Speaking with affection, fans still describe the old place with words like scuzzy, grungy, dingy, rickety. These descriptors could just as well be synonyms for bluesy. Seen in this light, Guy celebrating his eightieth at his new spot–three bars, two floors, streaming video, a VIP lounge, craft beer on draft–could be seen as a marker for how far he has come over the years. He’s gone from lively upstart to indispensable elder-statesman, and the man who came to town with nothing but a guitar now has his name on the building. As Buddy would say, it’s a long way from picking cotton to picking guitar at the White House.

“We’d do it more, but we only have so much in the bank account,” said John Zavala, 59, who was with his wife Susan and their son Tammer, who’s in his late teens. The couple decided to fly in from California to celebrate the young man’s birthday. They’d seen Guy six times–three of which were at the Canyon Club, in Agoura Hills. They managed to get tickets on the fly, a truly lucky feat as evidenced by the tightly-controlled security at the door and the at-capacity crowd. Every seat was full; the show had sold out months before, within hours of going on sale. The fans who had lined up for hours quickly snapped up the tables, and the bar stools were not long after. The rest crowded along the back wall or found a spot in standing room.

Most who reach 80 are celebrating just for reaching that milestone, but the past year has been one of Buddy’s best ever. Aside from winning his seventh Grammy for Born to Play Guitar, his most recent effort also won Guy two Blues Music Awards– his total of 37 is the most of all time by a long shot. He was also invited to the White House, again.

Intl Jazz Day taping 2016 April 29 – by Garry Buck

It was the fifth time during President Barack Obama’s tenure. Obama said Buddy’s visits were the best perk of the presidency, second only to Air Force One. It’s one of many points of pride bestowed upon Chicagoans by an executive who resided here long enough to know something about the city’s quirky traditions and rich history.

Buddy Guy is a huge part of that history. Muddy Waters took the delta blues and plugged it in; Buddy Guy grabbed that electric guitar and ran around the building with a hundred foot cord, playing behind his head. Guy taught an entire generation of guitarists the importance of blues while giving them permission to stretch out through the example of his performances. And one of the more exciting elements of his eightieth birthday party was how far the chains have been linked.

The show got off to a great start. The Brother John Band had a thoroughly smooth and chilled-out set; they usually host the Monday night jam, and true to form they brought up special guests Kate Moss and Harmonica Hinds, two fixtures of the Chicago blues scene. The eponymous Brother John Kattke himself briefly toured with Buddy, as did his drummer Marty Binder.

After a brief intermission, Carlise Guy proved that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree as her outfit, the NuBlu Band, soulfully breezed through several blues standards.

But where was Buddy? You didn’t hear anyone ask it; the tension had the feel of a surprise party, of people waiting to jump up and shower the guest of honor with adulation. And then, almost out of the blue, the man himself was escorted from the garage adjacent to the club by Annie Lawlor, his personal assistant and publicist, and a few family members. Hat low as usual, he traded in his polka dots for something a little more summer-appropriate: a blue and yellow Hawaiian shirt. Before spending the night with his fans, he ducked upstairs to say hello to his family and some special friends, and as soon as he walked into the VIP room he was greeted with a roar of applause.

8_1_16 Budy Guy 80th B'day _007Keb Mo, Zakk Wylde, Jimmie Vaughan and Jerry Only – photo by Chuck Lanza

Off duty Chicago police officers guarded the entrance while inside, three generations of musical luminaries mingled in unlikely combinations. Chris Stewart from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame presented him with a cake; Paul Natkin zoomed around in his quiet way and took photos. Otis Rush, the famed Chicago bluesman who was given a massive tribute at this year’s Chicago Blues Fest, sat front and center flanked by his wife. Guy called him his best friend in the world, and indeed, they go way back: Otis Rush was the first musician to bring Buddy to the stage when he came to Chicago in 1957.

Buddy Guy and Otis Rush

Buddy Guy and Otis Rush (by Chuck Lanza)

One of the amazing things about Buddy Guy is watching huge rock stars turn into giddy fans. People who tour the world act like they somehow sneaked backstage. Jerry Only of the Misfits called him “a ray of hope and sunshine that glows and lights all he touches.”

“I met him a few years ago, and just the thought of him being my friend makes me warm,” he added. “Even my little girl loved coming to see him. He is family for sure.”

Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine brought his family with him; his mother used to go to the old club, see Guy play, and talk about it to her young son, who eventually became a fan himself after going back to see what all the fuss was about.

“His charisma has charmed generations of Morello women,” he said, proceeding to tell a story about meeting him at the White House a few years ago with his wife. Afterward, Buddy Guy was all she talked about for months.

“[He] is one of the great bluesmen, and there aren’t a lot left,” Morello added. “It is an honor to bask in his humor, his rich music, and his deep soul.”

When asked the question of what Buddy Guy meant to him, the famed English guitarist Jeff Beck was more blunt: “A really long career.” He would know: Outside of Otis Rush, his has been the longest, first in the Yardbirds and then was a solo artist.

jeff beck plays poolJeff Beck shoots pool at Buddy’s birthday party – by Chuck Lanza

“Way back before I saw him, there was a brick wall,” he added, and talked about how refreshing it was to hear Guy’s music amongst the frustration that was popular radio, which was still heavily slanted towards acoustic then.

Finally, Guy left the lounge to come onstage. It’s no secret that Remy XO is his drink of choice, and he was presented with an engraved bottle of it in front of a cake that was shaped like the bottle. Then the night took on the air of a dignitary giving a speech–deafening silence so that the crowd could hear everything he had to say, followed by powerful, intermittent cheering. A video tribute featuring the likes of White Snake, Shemekia Copeland, and baseball legend Randy Johnson, of all people, soon followed.

Buddy’s older sister Annie Mae nearly stole the show with a spirited rendition of Happy Birthday that she took right into an old gospel tune. Like her younger brother, you had no idea how old she was until she told you, and you wished you were nearly that vibrant if and when you reach that point.

Once they left the stage, the Mike Wheeler Band started playing, and then it was an old school, all-star Chicago blues jam until closing time: Quinn Sullivan, Carmen Vandenberg, Jimmy Hall, Jonny Lang and Ronnie Baker Brooks, Buddy’s producer Tom Hambridge, Marty Sammon and Tim Austin from Buddy’s own Damn Right Blues Band. Buddy himself got up and sang. Familiar names from recent tours gave way to prominent Chicago artists who had come to pay their musical respects- Guy King, Dave Herrero, Toronzo Cannon, Big James, and more.

Guitarist Zakk Wylde gave a one-sentence answer as to what Guy’s influence was. He was also in attendance; the two are friends, and have even shared a cover of Guitar Player magazine. His response was direct and heavy, just like his music.

“He’s the pontiff of the blues,” Wylde said.

J. Howard Rosier

J. Howard Rosier

J. Howard Rosier has a journalism degree from Columbia College. He is currently studying writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he also serves as News Editor for FNews.

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