Chicago has mastered many things. Deep dish pizza. Hot dogs. Architecture. Beer. While arguments for the Mississippi Delta and Kansas City might be heard, it should be argued that the blues ranks highly among those cultural features.
Buddy Guy’s Legends was opened in 1989 by blues master Buddy Guy and remains one of the liveliest blues clubs in the city – if not one of the only ones remaining in operation. Located in the middle of the South Loop, it is a destination for both locals and tourists alike. Blues masters regularly make appearances to pay homage to the city that gave the country Chess Records, that introduced Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Howling Wolf to a wider audience. And every January, Mr. Buddy Guy himself makes a residency, sticking around town for the entire month.
I was gifted with a ticket by a friend of mine to see Buddy Guy play this past Sunday. Zach, trust me when I say this: you win. You win all the things. You are right forever. Because that was incredible.
There was an opening act, a simple blues trio that played a variety of standards. Nothing flashy, nothing fancy, nothing special. Exactly what a good opening act should be. The crowd, consisting of mostly white tourists from Russia and Canada (judging by the two dozen people we interacted with) was appreciative, if slightly focused on the Seattle-Green Bay playoff game. (Go Seahawks)
They were followed by the Joe Moss Band, the act my friend had selected this trip for, and the reasoning was evident from the sound check. Joe Moss can play. He has a simple voice, grounded without being too earthy, bluesy without being affected. He worked through a variety of tunes, ranging from 12 bar stomps to ballads that caused the room to melt. At one point, he played his guitar behind his head, proving his showmanship, as well as mastery of a form that essentially consists of six notes but is filled with so much expression as to wring emotion from the most hardened soul like water from a sponge.
It looked pretty cool. It sounded amazing. Zach and I agreed that the 78-year-old Buddy Guy might be hard pressed to top Joe Moss.
And then Buddy Guy came onstage.
As a musician, Buddy Guy isn’t exactly a pure blues artist. I mean, he plays blues music, but his style is commonly regarded as a bridge between the Delta based blues of early Chess artists and the hard rock and roll propagated by the (mostly white) musicians of the late ’60s, including Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, and Guy’s lifelong friend and leading proponent Eric Clapton. It is a style based upon the pentatonic blues, coupled with familiar licks and solos over a 12 bar structure and usual blues motifs, but electrified, distorted, and prone to sudden rises and falls in volume. Space is prioritized – long runs of notes are followed by pauses, coupled with vocal supplements in the form of grunts, howls, and whoops.
The first song was an up-tempo rocker, and Guy immediately launched into a howling maelstrom of notes, centered upon the upper registers of his guitar. And he didn’t let up from there.
Picture the thing in life that you’re the best at. Your best skill. The thing you pride yourself the most upon. Whatever it is, and however good you think you are at that skill, Buddy Guy is tenfold times better at playing guitar. He played for a solid two and a half hours, and if you are still able to do anything besides nap when you’re 78 years old, you are a terrifying creature. And you still won’t be able to play guitar like Buddy Guy.
He played as fast or faster than any guitarist I’ve ever met. His range and technique rivaled anything I’ve heard off of Hendrix’s live records. During one segment of the show, he did a mini-history of the blues, playing snippets from standards by John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles, Cream, and Marvin Gaye. He tapped with both hands as well as Eddie Van Halen. He played behind his head. He played with a drumstick. He played with one hand behind his back. He not only played with his teeth, he played with his elbows, crotch, and ass.
At one point, he walked around the club while playing with a wireless cord, making a complete circuit of the crowd. At one point, he was two feet away from me.
There’s a certain element of showmanship within Buddy Guy’s style that I feel was amped up for the massive amounts of tourists in the crowd. He would stop in the middle of songs to tell jokes, or to change up the song in some fashion. He was lewd and crude, and the crowd ate it up. You can tell that Buddy Guy loves performing, and this show was less about the music and more about the experience…but what an experience.
One song he played was “74 Years Young“, featured on his 2010 Grammy-winning album Living Proof. As he’s no longer 74, he simply updated it to “78 Years Young”. The man is a living treasure, a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, and one of the greatest guitar players to ever walk the boards. Seeing him in any capacity, and especially in a club that reeked of cold beer and sweat, is a treat that shouldn’t be missed by any fan of music.
Guy’s residency continues through the month of January. Buddy Guy’s Legends is located at 700 South Wabash. Tickets aren’t cheap, but if you’ve got $55-$65 to burn, it’s a once in a lifetime experience. Totally worth it.