Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Master and Sacrament

The greatest bluesman standing whams his not so marginal differentiations all the way home

It was a courtesy call. Eighty-year-old B.B. King aside, Buddy Guy is the most honored bluesman standing, such a big deal he's on RCA-linked Silvertone, where he's been putting out notable albums since 1991. Yet it had been many years since I'd seen him with spit-singing harmonica maestro Junior Wells, whose 1998 death ended an off-and-on partnership of three decades. So when a death-metal guitarist I know became a blues nut working a summer job as an apprentice luthier, we made a date for a free show at Borough of Manhattan Community College's 900-seat Tribeca Performing Arts Center November 15. As a bonus I'd get a look at 26-year-old Shemekia Copeland, Johnny's daughter, on profile and rep one of blues's few ranking youngbloods.

I'd hoped Copeland's set would help me hear her records. Instead it convinced me that her voice lacked the size and her songs the edge that a red hot mama needs--not to reach the specialist audience, which has been padding its waistline on marginal differentiation for so long that it can barely get to the corner anymore, but the rest of us. The major blues album is a vanishing artifact. Along with Robert Cray and Corey Harris, Guy himself is one of the few living humans with more than one. Competent work abounds--the specialist audience knows how sustaining bent notes and aab closure can be. But the tweak of the new is hard to come by, and not just on record. Stacy Mitchhart at B.B. King's November 27, who with his yeoman's voice and panoply of guitar options ground fatback "I'm a King Bee" and sirloin "It Hurts Me Too" into hamburger as nondescript as his originals, can stand in for 100 others just as honorable and committed. The winner of the 2003 Albert King Award for most promising guitarist packed no more surprise than Slippery When Wet, who regaled the insatiable at B.B.'s after Bon Jovi played the Garden two nights later.

But in Tribeca, 69-year-old Buddy Guy ignored all obituaries. He looked spectacular--shaved head, embroidered sky-blue overalls, pin-striped navy-blue dress shirt, black-and-white shoes midway between sneakers and spats. And when he began playing he played . . . almost nothing: quiet little pinging blue notes high up on the fretboard to which he eventually added a few crooned lines of "I'm Going Down." An audacious trick, and it worked--the full house strained to listen. Moreover, similar teases dominated the show, their pleasure intensified by blasts of sound like the raucously out solo with which newsboy-capped hipster pianist Marty Sammon finished off the opener. Guy can still big up, sure thing. He long ago decided that Hendrix kid had ideas worth stealing, and sometimes he rocked whole songs. He also freed strapping young guitarist Ric Hall to get dirty for 32 bars, and left space for a solo that could have been a Buddy Guy transcription by goateed hipster saxophonist Jason Moynihan. But what made the show transfixing was its dynamics--the almost sexual expertise with which Guy withheld and then slammed home the payoff. Sammon never shone so loud again, but he was attentive and imaginative throughout, as was man-mountain drummer Tim Austin. The band anticipated every shift in rhythm and volume. As Guy put it more than once, the total effect was so funky you could smell it.

The coolest touch came when--accompanied by an aide with a flashlight, his bone density ain't what it used to be--Guy walked singing and sometimes playing to the rear of the theater. Halfway back down, he guided the wrist of a female audience member--no hottie, a stout fiftysomething who looked like she worked at BMCC--until she was strumming his guitar. He provided the fancy stuff up the fretboard, and suddenly this college administrator, let's say, was playing a blues solo. Due to the miracle of cordless technology, however, it emanated physically from the stage, although few had their heads turned toward the three band members doing a dance routine there. It was an inspired image of formal mastery in all its generosity and artifice.

But there was more to come, and soon Guy was introducing the "friend" he claims pressured him into putting Otis Redding's "I've Got Dreams to Remember" on his songful and soulful if not altogether successful new Bring 'Em In: accidental teenthrob John Mayer, a VH1-favored member of the Dave Matthews-Justin Mraz school of jazzy pop-rock who caught the blues bug just when it was presumed extinct. I respect Mayer, a decent and funny guy, but I assumed he'd prove a dabbler, and I was wrong. He had his own mellow, soft-edged sound on guitar, and traded vocals with Guy even up. Modestly, he tried to duck away after the cameo, but Guy insisted he stay, so there was no blaming him for the solo he couldn't find his way out of, and if Guy good-naturedly obliterated him every time he played a little guitar, that was right and natural. Guy was the master, the last great bluesman standing. Mayer was his apprentice.

And we--we were partakers in a sacrament. Because as Guy seems to conceive it, what matters isn't Buddy Guy, but blues itself. He is its tireless exegete. Regulars say his sets change night to night, and though he was always an ace guitarist, his instrumental range and control keep growing. On the other side of his crooning, he's a brawnier singer now than 30 years ago too. If his records often fall just slightly short anyway--the best of his mature period, Sweet Tea, cashes in the repertoire trick of cherry-picking the underexploited Fat Possum songbook--it's because his vocal signature is more about the genre than the artist, whose personality is less distinct than King's or even Wells's. He personifies the generosity of artifice.

As it turns out, however, he isn't alone, because B.B. King himself remains the greatest bluesman sitting. You don't think anyone paid 42nd Street prices for Stacy Mitchhart, do you? Talking a lot and flaunting his seniority, King never got out of his chair. But he was too old to be subtle about proving himself--his voice was powerful, and his guitar flowed into harmonic estuaries he wouldn't have dared in his crowd-pleasing, legend-building prime. I predict no revival. But great genres aren't just for specialists.

Village Voice, Dec. 13, 2005