Buddy Guy says he was "born to play the guitar," but after watching him at the Hard Rock Live in Hollywood last night, I’m convinced he was already playing it in the womb. He treats his instrument like a best friend, and picks it as if it were another natural appendage on his body to wield.
Without any grand entrances or announcements, not even an opening act, Guy walked out on stage with a cool swagger and just started wailing. His first words, “I’ve got the blues…” — the familiar cry — enraptured the audience and sparked a tangible energy for the evening.
But after he finished his first song, “Damn Right I Got The Blues,” he reminded us that blues music isn’t about being sad, and that “A smile is always better than a frown. If we all smiled, the world would be a better place to live.”
That's what Buddy Guy has been doing for 79 years, without any apologies. All he wants is to hear more blues on the radio, and for his legacy, as well as his predecessors', to live on after he’s gone. In a recent interview with NPR, Guy said, “I worry about the future of blues music.” If the younger generations aren’t exposed to it, how can they know if they like it?
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He prefaced his second song with, “This is the kind of a hit they don’t play on the radio anymore,” and then went into “Close To You” by Muddy Waters. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I couldn’t remember the last time I heard a blues song on the radio. As I looked around the room, I saw mostly older folks, and a few 20-somethings sprinkled in the crowd. I suppose that shouldn’t be surprising with a legend like Guy, who has been playing his guitar and telling his tales for 50 years. Indeed, it seems like the entire genre is fading. But that doesn’t seem to completely faze Guy, and after witnessing such an incredible show, it helped ease some of my worry.
I have never seen a musician connect with an audience as closely as Guy does. Typically, you might see an artist make brief references to the city they're in, shouting a hollow “I love You!” But Guy treats his fans, old and new, like family, with a deep, authentic love and respect.
Eight songs in, the house lights went on, and he walked around the entire room, interacting with the crowds while still rocking his polka dot guitar. Of course, everyone flipped out and was so stunned that they pulled out their smartphones and started recording him like mad. A few women even got to kiss his cheek.
But the most memorable and poignant moment of the night, for me, came when Guy pulled out a guitar pick and handed it to a little boy, completely igniting his smile. It was a touching gesture, a metaphorical passing of the torch and Guy’s own way of inspiring a new generation of young people to love the blues like he did when he was just a kid in Louisiana.
Considering Guy played more songs from other musicians — like Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, and B.B. King — than from his own repertoire, the night felt more like a history lesson about the blues than simply a Buddy Guy concert. Every song he played, whether it was his own tune or someone else’s, was delightful. My one disappointment was that he didn’t sing one of his most popular songs, one of my favorites, “Mustang Sally.”
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After all these years, Guy still feels a duty to honor his teachers before he can perform even his own music. He admitted, “I didn’t learn anything in school. I learned it from these guys who did the blues the way it’s supposed to be played.”
Yet, it's clear Guy has his own style and he was just born that way. Throughout the night, he played his guitar with his teeth, stomach, pelvis, butt, a drumstick, and even a towel. It’s a fact: Blues artists play with the most soul. Every single part of them, from their head to their toes, is a part of the story.
I left the night feeling like I got a belly-deep laugh from a comedian, secret wisdom from a dear grandparent, a history lesson from a legend, and inspiration from a man who plays with more heart and soul than anyone I’ve seen.
I will warn you, though, that if you ever go to a Buddy Guy show, just don’t expect him to finish all the songs he starts; That’s just the way the blues are played, he says.