by Devon Wendell
It was a mixture of rawness and finesse as two of the great legends of the blues, Buddy Guy and B.B. King — the most influential living guitarists in the worlds of both rock and blues — shared the stage at the Hollywood Bowl Wednesday night.
Opening the show, Guy was backed by a super tight and attentive band and, instead of merely resorting to his familiar over-the-top, but fun stage antics, his set was more focused and subdued than usual.
For the first number, “Nobody Cares About Me Like My Guitar“, a funky, Memphis soul groove, Guy started off with a whirlwind of bent notes and guitar screams, before taking it way down and playing very soft and sweetly. His vocal performance, too, was more controlled, with obvious loving nods to Bobby “Blue” Bland.
Before delving into a medley of Muddy Water’s “Hoochie Coochie Man/”She’s 19 Years Old”, Buddy told the captivated audience; “I’m gonna give you something you don’t hear on the radio no more and that’s the blues.” His uncanny ability to capture the spirit of his former mentor and boss Waters was evident in both the vocal performance and physical mannerisms. When the audience laughed at Water’s wonderfully misogynistic lyrics, Guy humorously commented, “Shit man, I didn’t write these lyrics.” And he cut loose with a guitar solo that felt like a hurricane, even displaying a fun call and response routine between his voice and the squeaking sound of the electric guitar strings rubbing up against his chest.
Marty Sammons’ brilliant keyboard work soulfully ran up and down his Hammond B3-sounding electric keyboard with a sense of imagination and wild abandon that matched that of his band leader. Ric Hall’s guitar work didn’t try to mimic Guy’s style, instead demonstrating a unique tone and arsenal of original, ear piercing leads. And Orlando Wright’s bass lines were powerful with Motown flavor and dynamics.
“Before Hip-hop, the old blues cats would do what they called party records,” Guy said before humorously going into a song from the dirty dozen tradition of risqué blues lyrics with “He’s A Milkin’ Mother For Ya,’” after which Guy switched to electric sitar on the gospel ballad “Skin Deep,” the title track from his 2007 album. His vocal shone brightly on this number, and his phrasing on the electric sitar was close to that of B.B. King’s. And, even though the instrument was out of tune, Guy proved once again — as he has throughout his career — that an out of tune instrument is only a slight inconvenience.
On O.V. Wright’s slow minor key blues classic “Drownin’ On Dry Land,” Guy finally surrendered to the wild abandon which he’s most known for, playing a flurry of dizzying notes and runs that would make the Devil flinch, while walking out into the enthusiastic crowd. His tech followed behind and handed Guy the vocal mic at just the right moment as he serenaded the first ten rows of listeners, alternating between soft and low and then back to thunderous and loud.
The remainder of Guy’s set was far less focused, as he performed the title tracks of his top selling, award winning albums of the ’90s, “Slippin’ In“ and “Damn Right I Got The Blues“ and a medley of John Lee Hooker’s” Boom, Boom, Boom“ with a falsetto funky jab at Guy’s protégé and admirer Eric Clapton on Cream’s “Strange Brew.“ He ended with a few wah-wah drenched bars of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),“ making clear the musical link from Hooker to Hendrix as well as Guy’s profound influence on both Clapton and Hendrix.
Though Guy’s set felt rushed at times, his choice to hold back on the usual stage banter and bag of tricks made for a more musically powerful program — completely raw in all the best ways.
Headlining the show, B.B. King — the “King Of The Blues” – sent his band on stage to open the set with some uptown swing instrumentals in a late-night-on-Beale-Street mood. And the horns took the opportunity to loosen up and show off their tightly punctuated hooks.
Then King, 84 years young, took the spotlight, walking slowly to his seat with a big smile. Wasting no time, he played a few of his trademark string bends with his one-of-a-kind bright tone and fast vibrato. After thanking the audience, he went right into his blues ballad classic “I Need You So.“ and it was immediately apparent that his voice sounded as strong as it has in years.
Easily the highlight of King’s performance was a slow, mournful version of Big Bill Broonzy’s “Key To The Highway,“ in which his guitar playing cried, pleaded, and moaned like no one else’s.
But King soon went into his comic routines and wound up talking and joking more than playing. It was fun at first, but soon became distracting from the music, especially in his original rendition of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.“ When he finally went back to singing, his voice sounded tired, but the way he fought the tiredness made the music even more powerful.
King’s choice of material was certainly humorous enough, without all of the talking and jokes about “Doctor Viagra” and “Nurse Cialis” or his life long love for the ladies. Numbers such as “I’m A Blues Man But I’m A Good Man Understand,” a gleeful tale of the misunderstood life of a blues pioneer, and “Because I’m Over 35 Don’t Mean I’m A Dirty Old Man,” musically summed up everything King was trying to convey to the audience through his narrative humor. Even the performance of his classic “Rock Me Baby” spoke more to the power of sex versus aging than any spoken joke or seemingly endless tale.
Rhythm guitarist Charles Dennis’s colorful texturing and tasty fills, and drummer Tony Coleman’s in the pocket drumming, were exceptional throughout — even on the band’s revved up version of “When Love Comes To Town,” in which King’s vocals couldn’t keep up with the breakneck speed of the song’s latest arrangement. Another high point of the evening was King’s version of “You Are My Sunshine“ with a hillbilly twist, especially the intro, which featured King playing the melody line on Lucille along with a dancing horn arrangement. But again the music was interrupted by more stage banter, derailing this otherwise fascinating experiment.
King went past the Bowl’s curfew and the houselights went on during his final number, “The Thrill Is Gone“ – not exactly the right way to treat the King of the Blues. Still, King was a gentleman and waved goodnight to his beloved audience while tossing his signature guitar picks out to the crowd before exiting the stage.
Though King’s witty banter was a bit overdone, at times, and Guy’s guitar playing sometimes lacked finesse, both performers gave their all. And one wonders how they’ll sound a decade from now, because both Guy, at 74, and King, at 84, thoroughly proved that the blues knows no age.
Photos by Tony Gieske