“Funny thing about the blues — you play ’em ’cause you got ’em. But, when you play ’em, you lose ’em.” — Buddy Guy
Every time I travel west, I make it a point to check concert listings to see who is playing. I don’t mean the big names like Beyonce, Madonna or whoever most people pay top dollar for. I am talking about obscure, aging blues virtuosos who have inspired me and my craft and are still touring the circuit.
There are so few of them left, so the struggle is real, but so is the satisfaction of witnessing the purveyors of the music I adore bring it to life on the live stage. The blues was born in America, so I knew that is where I had to be. In fact, when the time was ripe for me to pursue graduate studies, I only looked at US universities, on the east coast so I could easily manage a trip to Chicago.
I did make the trip and was determined to pay the Legends bar in the South Loop a visit. But a classmate recommended that I go to Kingston Mines instead, which was loads of fun, but that meant I had to miss the opportunity to meet my idol, Buddy Guy, in person. I have learned that even today, at 83, he still hangs out at Legends, a bar that he owns, mainly because it is good for business for blues fans around the world who want to have a picture with him. I could have been one of them.
Five long years later, I looked up Buddy Guy again before an upcoming trip to the US, and boy was I in luck. I found out that he would be performing in East Providence a few days before my return to Manila from Boston, which is a mere hour away by train. Sold! I am finally seeing the man.
You, and perhaps some of the older rock heads at Buddy’s concert at Bold Point Park, must be wondering how I got into Buddy Guy’s music or the blues in general. (I was an anomaly at that concert and could count the number of Asians in the crowd with one hand.) I started with alternative and grunge in high school, and when I felt that those genres had reached their artistic tipping point, I decided to go back to basics. I researched the top 500 albums, top 100 guitarists, top singers, anything I could get my hands on. I struggled with my dial-up internet connection as I Limewired multiple albums simultaneously. The invention of the downloadable mp3 opened the floodgates of music heaven by Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Bonnie Raitt. I devoured them all, but still no Buddy.
It was only when a Manila-based blues band The Blue Rats started looking for a new vocalist, and I got the gig, that my blues education reached new heights with a little help from my new friends. One specific friend, an American photographer slash harp player living in Manila, gave me a copy of “Feels Like Rain.” By that time, I had already been into Bonnie Raitt, so when I heard her doing the backing vocals on this song, I leaned in. Then I started listening to his other hits like “Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues,” and “She’s Nineteen Years Old” and the melancholy was so palpable in both his voice and his playing. All I could say is, this Buddy Guy is amazing!
Born in 1936 in Lettsworth, Louisiana to crop workers, Buddy Guy started playing with two strings from their screen door until someone took notice and bought him his first real guitar. He left for Chicago at the age of 21, and when he did, he told his momma that he will buy her a polka dot Cadillac with the money he would make playing the blues in Chicago. He lied, and she died not knowing the truth. So in her honor, he had Fender customize a polka dot Strat.
“The Blues is an uphill battle. And we don’t have many of us left. I’m just hoping the blues don’t disappear.”
His story and the stories of many other great blues pioneers like Robert Johnson (the movie Crossroads is a rite of passage for the uninitiated), Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, and BB King were the silent but constant clamor for justice, or at the very least, acceptance, of an entire race. They wrote the language of the blues to convey their dismay and to express their anger, on behalf of their people. They did it so well that white people took notice, with the likes of Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, and The Rolling Stones recreating the classics. Some people were not too happy about this, like LeRoi Jones, who was infuriated by the prospect of a more privileged race making a fortune from the black man’s art.
“It seems to me, all you have to do is be white and just play a guitar — you don’t have to have the soul — you gets farther than the black man.”
But is it not this global appreciation of roots music that talks about pain and hardship in a way that is liberating that we all should embrace? Black or white, rich or poor, male or female — these do not apply. Music is music and it does not take sides. If there is any discrimination, it should only be in that blues could be more mainstream, and I’m afraid personal preference is beyond our control.
It is disappointing that Buddy Guy’s music has not caught on in the Philippines, which knows tragedy well. It only has maybe 0.000001% of the 100+ million population knowing what the blues is about. When we hit the bars here, we stay close to where the expats are, try to live up to their expectations and throw in some local language originals in the mix. Nothing beats ranting in the vernacular when dramatizing feelings, but most people would still go for popular songs that are made for karaoke. Like Buddy, we are trying to keep the blues alive and well, and we have a small tight community of blues nerds geeking out on all things blues. Young prodigies like The Bleu Rascals have also emerged and taken Memphis by storm, so I think the future of blues in the Philippines still looks promising.
The crowd was pumped at Bold Point Park. Rented outdoor chairs, food trucks and a gorgeous sunset created the perfect concert atmosphere. It seemed like a lot of babysitters got busy that one night. The weather was perfect after five consecutive days of rain, a welcome reprieve despite deep mud in the soles. My soul was soaring and that is all that mattered.
Buddy Guy got on stage after three outstanding acts, the last one being Kenny Wayne Shepherd. He donned a polka dot shirt and a plain Strat, but there was nothing plain at all with his playing. The moment I heard the first riff of “Damn Right I Got The Blues,” I felt chills. I had been waiting for so long to see Buddy Guy play live, and that moment has finally come. And he was relentless. When “Feels Like Rain” came on, my tears streamed. They felt like rain, but I was on top of the world. His art gives me a reason to live, his talent a trigger to become better.
When US Presidents were still cool, Obama was quoted as saying that after Air Force One, the greatest perk of office was that “Buddy Guy comes here all the time to my house with his guitar.” Can we blame him?