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Bluesman Buddy Guy Still Shines At 75

photo credit: Maria Ives

photo credit: Maria Ives

Buddy Guy, currently promoting his autobiography When I Left Home: My Story, often discusses the importance of keeping the blues alive. On Saturday night at Montclair, New Jersey’s Wellmont Theatre, two of his young disciples demonstrated that the art form still has a lot of life left in it. As for Guy himself, at 75 (or, as he referred to it in his song of the same name, “75 Years Young”), the man still plays with the energy of someone one third his age.

Opening act Jonny Lang, 31, has been playing the blues for over a decade, and has a long history with Guy (they collaborated on “Midnight Train,” from Guy’s 1998 album Heavy Love). His set, which included “Lie To Me,” “Red Light” and a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Livin’ For The City,” was rocking and emotional. Lang clearly has learned from Guy and other legends like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King; he knows blues isn’t just about guitar technique, it’s also about conveying emotion, and he delivered a set that balanced both.

Guy, however, is in a league of his own. One of the few bluesmen from the Chess Records era who is still around, still playing, and still creatively vital, he plays every show as if it was his first (or his last). His humility is such that he still feels he needs to earn his fans, and he also knows that he has a legend to live up to.

Opening with something of a mission statement – “Nobody Understands Me Like My Guitar” – Guy came out with guns blazing. His powerful vocals are undiminished with age, and his guitar playing seems to only get better with each show.

Guy got his start in Chicago playing for legends like Waters and Wolf, and honors that history in his sets, with classics like “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “She’s 19 Years Old.” In his autobiography, he explained that Waters wrote the latter song well into his 40s based on his personal preference – the man enjoyed younger women. From the stage, Guy, with magnetic charisma, joked with the audience “Don’t look at me like that! I didn’t write that f***in’ song!”

Guy’s shows aren’t just about history: since his “comeback” album, Damn Right, I’ve Got The Blues in 1991, he’s released a series of excellent records. He drew from them last night, playing the title track from 1994’s Slippin’ In, with the audience singing along with the chorus (“While you were slippin’ out, someone else was slippin’ in!”). He also played “74 Years Young” from his latest album, 2010’s Living Proof, noting that he now has to change the lyrics to “75.”

His guitar playing and singing suggest that he has many years left as blues’ most powerful ambassador, and he also displayed some impressive showmanship. In his early days, he used a 120 foot chord to perform his guitar solos far from the stage (even playing from outside the club). At the Wellmont, he left the stage, walking through the audience, took the staircase to the second floor and went to the front row of the balcony… without missing a note.

But it was during “Little By Little” that Guy really showed who will carry the blues torch in the future. Jonny Lang joined him, and the guitar slingers, who separated by four decades, went back and forth on solos and lead vocals. Then, Guy introduced 13 year old Quinn Sullivan who walked on stage and proceeded to stun the audience with his guitar playing. As with Lang, he knows the blues scales, but his soulful playing suggests that he has studied more than music theory.

After that, they played the title track of Guy’s 1993 album, Feels Like Rain, with Guy asking Lang if he knew the words. Lang nodded and took the mic for part of the song. Lang has clearly studied the masters, and Sullivan seems to be doing the same. When the younger musicians took their solos, Guy beamed from the side of the stage, confident that his influence will live on for decades. The blues are still alive and kickin’.

Buddy Guy, Jonny Lang and singer/guitarist Robert Randolph play the NYCB Theatre At Westbury on Thursday night (6/14) and Guy and Randolph play the Tarrytown Music Hall in Tarrytown, NY on Saturday (6/16).

–Brian Ives, CBS Local