During the 1980s, Buddy Guy discovered that he could keep working by playing very fast, very loud and catering to the lowest common denominator of the blues audience. A '90s career resurgence hasn't made him think about changing, as his excruciatingly excessive headlining set Saturday at the 16th annual Long Beach Blues Festival demonstrated.
The formula: Take the most familiar blues classics and filter them through the high-energy blues-rock sound that developed in the '60s. Then throw in brief quotes from Hendrix, Clapton and Vaughan to remind everyone of Buddy Guy's undeniable importance as a blues guitar influence.
But don't try to think of a Buddy Guy song that's a blues classic or even a signature tune--there aren't any. On Saturday he didn't bother with originals, playing the blues scavenger with ham-fisted versions of classics associated with Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Albert King, T-Bone Walker, Wilson Pickett and others.
Guy didn't really play the songs , either--he rarely made it into the second verse before saying, "You can help me on this one" (cue a sing-along) or "We're going to play so funky you can smell it" (signal a slow blues). Imagine channel surfing through a blues hits jukebox.
If Buddy Guy is the best the blues has to offer, the blues isn't going anywhere new.
Otis Rush delivered far more music in his 40-minute set, but received a far more muted response from the audience of roughly 10,000 at the Cal State Long Beach Athletic Field. The left-handed guitarist was a late-'50s contemporary of Guy's in Chicago and another important influence, with two bona fide classics ("All My Love," "So Many Roads") and one that should be ("Double Trouble").
Rush's sinewy guitar lines and expressive voice were in top form during a strong, varied dose of classic Chicago blues. A solid, four-piece backing band supported him with arrangements full of dynamic shadings and an able instrumental foil in organist David Rice.
Dr. John's 40-minute set with a horn-driven, eight-piece band showed the range of the New Orleans R&B tradition. The pianist's set relied on such familiar choices as "Iko Iko" and his own hit "Right Place, Wrong Time," but the arrangements combined chunky funk with some intriguing twists. One combined the gospel standard "Down by the Riverside" with second-line Mardi Gras Indian chants.
The festival lived up to its "Blues From Coast to Coast" theme with Mississippi Delta blues from Junior Kimbrough and West Coast R&B by the Johnny Otis Revue. Sunday's performance was scheduled to be headlined by the Memphis sound of the Stax Revue, featuring Booker T. & the MG's, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds' Texas blues.