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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Whatta Guy: Blues Jester Holds Court at Coach House

April 24, 1993|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Blues music has had a plenitude of kings, but there's no one who can give Buddy Guy a run for the title of clown prince.

As usual, Guy's performance Thursday night at the Coach House was virtually an over-amped, over-the-top caricature of the blues. And, as ever, the 56-year-old singer/guitarist's emotional intensity and irrepressible personality prevailed over the carnival atmosphere he created.

It's always a curious delight to hear Guy's backing of such greats as Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf on '60s Chess records.

The electric guitar's place in Chicago blues had already been set in those singers' bands before Guy arrived in 1958 from Louisiana. In his playing with them, he was in large part respectful of that precedent, and was probably awed by the proximity of the legends he was playing with. But even then you could sometimes hear his exuberance get the better of him as his fingers went skittering over his fretboard in runs that were at once absurdly free of musical logic and possessed of a palpable blues sting.

Now most of Guy's mentors are gone, and there's nothing to restrain him. Indeed, today he also draws inspiration from a younger generation of flashy players who were first inspired by his '60s playing, making for some truly distorted fun-house reflections. Guy at times can seem to be doing a parody of de bluze , overplaying at overwhelming volume while mugging, clowning and engaging in every crowd-pleasing trick extant.

But one might as well criticize a volcano for gushing. Thursday his unfettered guitar work and ferocious singing came across like a force of nature, and like a lava flow, you expect it to be a mite untidy.

*

He and his three backup musicians opened their performance by playing one of Guy's biggest calling cards, "Mary Had a Little Lamb," which the late Stevie Ray Vaughan popularized. Guy did the whole song, a rare occurrence at his shows, where he more often than not lurches from tune to tune in mid-verse. As he noted in an improvised section tacked onto his following song, "Hey Mr. Soundman, I don't even know what I'm going to do my goddamned self!"

At one point he announced, "I want to play the blues so funky you can smell it!" and then got momentarily distracted by his wah-wah pedal, launching into the opening of Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile" before remembering his intent and briefly mimicking the snakelike sound of Muddy Water's '50s standard, "She's Nineteen Years Old." That lasted about 130 seconds before he jacked the fuzzed-out volume up in a screaming, spluttery solo. He closed out the song by chewing the lyric to death, all the while comically twitching his jaw every which way.

A similar transformation took place a few moments later when he began to deftly finger-pick a tribute to John Lee Hooker. Then one of those Jerry Lewis-like synapses in his brain took over, and he tumbled into a version of Marvin Gaye's "Ain't That Peculiar." Once Guy came out of free-fall, he did a commendable version of the song, softly singing two verses before thundering in with the full force of his raw, expressive voice.

Guy has a new album, "Feels Like Rain." Like his Grammy-winning 1991 "Damn Right, I've Got the Blues," the new disc has some strong songs (including the John Hiatt-penned title track and Gaye's "Trouble Man") and arrangements that showcase Guy's talents amid a persuasive blues-funk fusion.

He only made a couple of nods toward the new disc in his show, with the Waters tune and a tepid cover of Motown's "Some Kind of Wonderful." He similarly drew only two songs from the "Damn Right" album, relying instead on blues favorites like "Hoochie Coochie Man" and "Love Her With a Feeling" and "The Thrill Is Gone."

As usual he closed his set with Eddie Floyd's "Knock on Wood," pulling out what few stops he had left. He took his wireless guitar into the audience, into a restroom and even into a funky nirvana as he shook his strings through an avalanche of notes.

*

An ocean removed from Guy's Chicago, Britisher John Mayall spent the early '60s performing prim copies of American blues. He then got hold of a succession of live wire guitarists in Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Mick Taylor, who pioneered, for better or worse, the notion of the "guitar hero."

Nearly three decades on, Mayall, 59, is still at it. His current music--most of his nine-song set was from his new "Wake Up Call" album--is neither quite emulation nor innovation, but it's still enjoyable, craftsmanlike stuff.

His reedy vocals and chops on keyboards and harmonica are intact, and the longevity of his current lineup has paid off in a tight, distinctive band sound that was able to give each song its own flavor. Guitarist Coco Montoya and drummer Joe Yuele have been with Mayall for a decade, and recent addition Rick Cortes fit in easily.

A few years back his outfit was guilty of protracted meanderings over the same tired old blues changes. This time out the focus stayed on the songs--if one can forget the obligatory dreaded bass and drum solos on Mayall's 1969 chestnut, "Room to Move." With grooves ranging from New Orleans funk to rollicking R & B, the playing was sharp and focused, with Montoya particularly turning in some heated solos.

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