Buddy Guy is a howler. And that’s a good thing. When he plugs his electric guitar into a pile of amps, the damn speakers start to wail and moan, sending long crying notes and ribbons of impulsive feedback across an arch of time that connects the fuzzy-noise experimentalism of Sonic Youth and other blistering modernists with the swamps of Louisiana and the Mississippi Delta, and artists like Muddy Waters and Guitar Slim, who crawled out of those places. And when Guy sings, his honey-and-chocolate throat works the same high form of melismatic magic you’d hear from an ace soul belter. In short, he can bend notes as easily with his tonsils as he does with his fingers.
The trouble is, most of Guy’s recordings have failed to capture him at the top of his game. Sure, there are classics, like his earliest sides for Cobra Records, a handful of his Chess-label cuts, his 1968 Vanguard masterpiece A Man & the Blues, and his 1991 comeback Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues (Silvertone). His 2001 release Sweet Tea was also full of stomp-and-moan passion, but it grabbed the sound of Guy channeling the spirits of modern Mississippi juke blues more than drawing on his own roots in his birthplace of Lettsworth, Louisiana, and his adopted home of Chicago.
Where Guy really lets loose — and where he’s earned his reputation as the wild man of hardcore electric blues — is on stage. But for a player whose career began nearly 50 year ago, his live albums are woefully few.
At least they were until this January. That’s when the energetic 67-year-old played 16 straight nights at his own Chicago club, Buddy Guy’s Legends, and caught 11 of those concerts on digital tape. Through a deal struck with Guy’s management, his record company Silvertone, and new live-recordings specialty label Pirate Entertainment, double-CD recordings of those shows were available minutes after Guy hit the last chord each evening, and they can now be found on line at www.piratebootlegs.com.
"Man, I’m used to cutting a record today and not hearing it for months and months, it takes so long to come out," Guy says over the phone from a tour stop in Los Angeles. "Back in the days of Chess Records, we’d make some songs and Leonard [Chess, the label’s chief] would have them on the street the next day or something like that. After these shows we just recorded, I would hardly be off the stage and people would be asking me to autograph their CD of the night’s set."
Indeed, a number of bands with loyal fan bases, from giants like the Dead and Pearl Jam to indie spirits like Cambridge’s own Twinemen, have struck up relationships with companies that specialize in providing live concert recordings pronto — either instantly or within days. But Guy is the first major blues artist to throw down with this new wrinkle in CD production and distribution, which generally yields a higher royalty rate to artists than that paid by conventional labels.
For Guy, this series of new recordings sold under the name Live at Legends and stamped with the date of each performance is part of a campaign he’s waged since Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues. "Until then, I didn’t have a recording contract for 15 years. Today, when somebody asks me to record, I say, ‘When, and where I got to be?’ I want to record as much as possible, so everybody can find out who Buddy Guy is."
Nonetheless, the Live at Legends series is really for fans. These 22 discs aren’t getting the same marketing push Silvertone puts into Guy’s major-label releases, and they have overlapping set lists. "The songs were mostly the same each night. I tried to slip at least one different one in every time."
What’s interesting is hearing where Guy’s impulses — which have always played a major role in the quality and the thrill level of his shows — led him each night. For example, the January 16 CDs feature a "One Room Country Shack" from A Man & the Blues that’s surprisingly by-the-book. There are no big feedback-drenched solos. It’s just a laid-back reading teamed with sensitive guitar accompaniment that gets to the stinging heart of Guy’s autobiographical tale of his impoverished roots and his early ambitions. There’s also a guest turn from his daughter, who Guy says is about to make her own recorded debut as a rapper. (A good decision, to judge by her out-of-tune singing.)
The January 9 show is especially fiery, with an early-set appearance of his rarely performed "Elevate Me Baby" spiked by a chordal buzz-saw solo. Guy also tells the exuberant crowd, "You know, they don’t tell me a damn thing ’round here. They told me they recording this. I seen a time when they was recording I had to watch my mouth, but tonight I’m not gonna do that. I’m gonna say what I wanna say because they held me back for a long time until the hip-hop and rap guys started sayin’ it like it is. Blues guys been doin’ that all their lives, man, but they wouldn’t record it." The rest of the concert is peppered with a slew of "shit," "fuck," and "motherfucker" — just like Guy’s casual conversations — as he cues his musicians, including former Boston keyboardist Tony Z., to solo or reacts with dirty glee to the knotty lines of sawtooth-waved electricity his fingers weave on his Stratocaster’s neck.
Guy points out that his profanity, like his musicianship, is something he learned at the feet of the masters. "When I’d be at a session at Chess Records with Muddy or one of them guys, everything would be ‘motherfuck this’ or ‘motherfuck that’ or ‘come on over here, motherfucker,’ ‘play that again, motherfucker.’ It’s just the way they talked all the time, and I picked it up from them."
That’s another reason you may not hear much of these motherfucking recordings on radio, but at least when you do get ’em in your ears, you know they’re the real fuckin’ shit.
Despite the bootlegging connotation of the Pirate label’s name, these gigs are well recorded. All the instruments and vocals were individually miked, mixed live, and recorded to 24-channel digital audiotape. By the time the second hour of each show was under way, the first hour was being burned to CD. Using two disc burners at Legends that operated at 52 times the speed of real-time transfer, Pirate was able to produce CDs for fans at a rate of 17 roughly every three minutes.
Although Pirate Entertainment was founded in 2001, partner David Turner explains that the Guy discs are the company’s first project. "Like Buddy and his management, I’m based in Chicago," Turner says, "but that’s just coincidence. We thought starting with Buddy would be a safe bet because he’s such an accomplished charismatic performer and has very loyal fans. For me, being able to come in early and watch them set up for the show and to hang out with Buddy was also really, really cool." Turner’s enthusiasm seems genuine. His passion for collecting bootleg concert recordings inspired the name of the company. "I love my bootlegs, and I’m specifically a big collector of Springsteen. I even have the two Fenway Park shows [from last September], which were excellent."
Pirate’s at-venue presence is fairly typical of the way companies in the instant-concert-recording game can bump their services from pubs to arenas simply by adding more personnel and CD duplicators. For a tour, such a company might hire a full-time engineer to travel and record each night’s concert; for one-shot performances, a local recording company might be contracted.
"We can make 100 to 1000 duplications in a half-hour, depending on what gear we bring," Turner says. "For Buddy’s shows, the first batch was done 10 minutes after the encore, and another batch came down every two minutes after that. The conventional wisdom is that this would work best with jam bands." Tape trading and recording are, of course, part of the jam scene’s life blood. "But I honestly believe this is something that can work with any artist who gets in front of a live audience and puts on a great performance."
For Guy, making live recordings this way also assures him a greater degree of record-label accountability than he’s enjoyed at various times in the past. Artists can monitor their sales at shows, and there’s nobody — at least at this time — telling them what songs to play and how they should play them. "When I was at Chess, they would never let me be Buddy Guy in the studio — really turn my amps up and set my guitar good and loud with distortion — until they heard Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton havin’ hits. Then they said, ‘Buddy, you were right.’ But it was too late.
"Now, I still know guys like [songwriter] Willie Mabon and the rest who, more than 20 years down the road, are still mad at Leonard Chess and [Duke/Peacock Records owner] Don Robey. I tell them, there ain’t no way you’re ever gonna get even with those guys. You can kick their gravestones, but they ain’t gonna feel it. So you’ve got to concentrate on what you can do now."
Issue Date: May 14 - 20, 2004
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