Buddy Guy – Born to Play Guitar [TrackList follows] – RCA/ Silvertone [Distr. by Sony Music Ent.] 88875120372, 59:10 [7/31/15] ****:
(Buddy Guy – acoustic and electric guitars, vocals; Doyle Bramhall II – 12-string acoustic guitar, electric guitar; Bob Britt – electric resonator guitar; Chris Carmichael – string arrangements; Billy Cox – electric bass; Billy Gibbons – vocals, electric guitar (track 2); Kenny Greenberg – electric guitar; Tom Hambridge – drums, mixing, percussion, producer, tambourine, triangle, backing vocals, wind chimes; Tommy Macdonald – electric bass, production assistant; the McCrary Sisters – backing vocals; Kevin McKendree – African piano, Hammond B3, piano, clavinet; Rob McNelley – electric and resonator guitars, slide guitar; Van Morrison – vocals (track 13); Michael Rhodes – acoustic and electric basses; Joss Stone – vocals (track 8); Kim Wilson – harmonica (tracks 4, 6); Glenn Worf – upright and electric basses; Reese Wynans – clavinet, Hammond B3, grand piano, upright piano, Wurlitzer)
Cheating wives, philandering husbands, whiskey, beer, and the blues…lots of blues. On Buddy Guy’s 28th studio outing, the hour-long Born to Play Guitar, Guy does what he does best…he performs the blues. These 14 tracks touch on what Guy knows best: electric Chicago blues, acoustic Delta blues, juke joint blues, and tributes to fellow blues artists who have come and gone. Some of Guy’s previous records have had a loose theme, like his 2013 double album, Rhythm and Blues. But here, the songs are straightforward, sincere and intended to be a setting for Guy’s always-amazing guitar licks, lines and chords. His guests comprise Fabulous Thunderbirds’ co-founder Kim Wilson; ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons; Van Morrison; former Jimi Hendrix bassist Billy Cox; soulful singer Joss Stone (who has also worked with David Sanborn and Jeff Beck); Stevie Ray Vaughan keyboardist Reese Wynans and others.
Guy opens with his autobiographical title track, which is a slow ballad with acoustic piano; Guy’s ascending electric guitar; and a sympathetic rhythm section. It builds gradually, fronted by Guy’s lead guitar and some supportive secondary guitar. When Guy affirms “I’ve got the blues running through my veins,” you know he speaks from truth and experience. The proceedings immediately get rambunctious and sexually-charged on “Wear You Out,” especially when ZZ Top’s bassist Billy Gibbons supplies his forcefully thumping bass and equally gritty voice. While that heavy tone isn’t common on Born to Play Guitar, Guy echoes a similar Thunderbirds-like pounding on his homage to alcohol, “Whiskey, Beer & Wine,” where Guy sings about the good old days when bars offered dim lights, cigarette machines and dirt floors; and folks could “solve their problems one drink at a time.” That Fabulous Thunderbirds sound comes to the fore on two tunes with the T-Birds’ Wilson, who demonstrates why he remains a harmonica ace. First up there’s Guy’s rendition of “Too Late,” which is a tougher version than the one done by blues legend Little Walter. When Wilson rips it up with his harmonica, it’s like a knife slashing the air. Wilson also adds his bluesy harmonica to the searing “Kiss Me Quick,” where Guy insinuates to someone else’s woman, “You’re so fine, we ain’t got much time.”
Guy and producer Tom Hambridge—Guy’s key collaborator since Guy’s 2008 album Skin Deep—put confident, surprising changes to a few songs. Brook Benton’s “(Baby) You Got What It Takes” gets sweetened by sweeping strings which heighten Joss Stone’s higher-register vocals. Stone outshines Guy (he’s a solid blues belter but not a sophisticated soul crooner), but it’s still a delicious duet. Guy urbanizes “Smarter Than I Was” with distorted, reverb-drenched vocals; whopping, noisy electric guitar; and dense drums. This particular digression hopefully won’t be repeated, it’s gimmicky and undistinguished. On the plus side, Hambridge and Guy insert a horn section to give a metropolitan seasoning to “Thick like Mississippi Mud,” a piece which melds a Delta blues foundation with a hard-hitting, Chicago-styled blues strut. The most moving track is “Flesh & Bone,” a firm Guy/Van Morrison tribute to B.B. King (who passed away in May, 2015). This honest and worthy ballad is a bit incongruous, because it doesn’t sound like anything else on Born to Play Guitar (it’s more akin to what Morrison does than Guy) but it’s a standout. Guy concludes with another earnest ode to lost friends, the acoustic “Come Back Muddy,” dedicated to Guy’s old mentor, Muddy Waters (who died in 1983). When Guy states, “Come back Muddy, man I sure do want to hear your voice, come back Muddy, let’s make up some of that old, nasty noise” it’s more than just a line, it’s an acknowledgement to amity, history and shared memories. It’s a great way to end a great blues album. Born to Play Guitar proves the blues is still alive and breathing, and there’s nothing like hearing an expert blues musician make his music.
TrackList: Born to Play Guitar; Wear You Out; Back Up Mama; Too Late; Whiskey, Beer & Wine; Kiss Me Quick; Crying Out Of One Eye; (Baby) You Got What It Takes; Turn Me Wild; Crazy World; Smarter Than I Was; Thick like Mississippi Mud; Flesh & Bone; Come Back Muddy.
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