Sweet Tea, blues legend Buddy Guy's latest album, opens with the 65-year-old Chicago blues veteran singing, in a ghostly a cappella, "Well I done got old/Can't do the things I used to do." Guy is hunkered over an acoustic guitar (it's a record, sure, but he sounds hunkered), an anomaly for a player whose scorching electric guitar leads influenced at least two generations of guitar heroes -- Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn. The song, "Done Got Old," was written by North Mississippi blues icon Junior Kimbrough, who died in 1998. The whole thing sounds like a beautifully macabre death knell.
The next song, the pleading, crying "Baby Please Don't Leave Me," also a Kimbrough number, adds electricity if not tempo -- seven minutes of microphone-shredding vocals and Hendrixian guitar anguish. Guy puts the acoustic down after the album's forlorn invocation, and the rest of Sweet Tea is the sound of Guy exposing the lie in that opening line. All electric -- is it ever.
Guy will join B.B. King to close out the first Great Southern Beer Festival at Mud Island on Sunday, August 26th. With the recent death of John Lee Hooker, King is the only blues figure who can eclipse Guy as the greatest living purveyor of the art, but, with Sweet Tea, Guy has produced the best record either icon has offered in years.
Guy recorded Sweet Tea in Oxford, Mississippi, mostly mining the area's hill-country-style blues for material -- more at his label's request than out of personal desire. (Guy in a recent interview with Guitar World: "Anyhow, they played me some of this music by the Junior guy and some others and it was different"). Of the record's nine songs, four were penned by Kimbrough. The record also has Guy interpreting the songs of hill-country blues artists such as T-Model Ford, Robert Cage, and Cedell Davis. The raw, droning sound is a huge departure for Guy, whose most recent efforts have been a more standard 12-bar mishmash of crowd-pleasing soul covers and celebrity cameos.
It's a gimmick, a commercial calculation, a bandwagon hop -- and it pays off big-time. Basically, this is the reigning king of Chicago blues recapturing his mojo by paying homage to the Fat Possum sound, the last decade's hippest, and some would say freshest, blues style (even if most Fat Possum artists are/were actually older than Guy). Certainly Fat Possum was the only blues other than the classy, often guest-star-laden work of major stars such as B.B. King and John Lee Hooker or the young, white blues-rock of Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd to find much of an audience outside the relatively cloistered community of the contemporary blues.
The result of this trip down south is possibly the best "Chicago" blues record since Muddy Waters left this earth. It's also arguably the best hill-country blues record -- the truth is Guy has more chops than the Fat Possum crowd, even the late, great Kimbrough. Guy reaches his pinnacle on Sweet Tea's two other Kimbrough cuts, the bruising, erotic "Stay All Night" and a shuddering 12-minute take on "I've Gotta Try You, Girl."
Sweet Tea might be the most aesthetically important crossover blues record (it probably won't dent the pop charts, but Sweet Tea will still be purchased by a lot of people who don't normally buy blues albums) since Robert Cray's Strong Persuader in 1986. But the most apt comparison isn't so much other blues records as other highly conceptual, exquisitely crafted roots records of recent years, namely Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind and Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels On a Gravel Road. All three records are American music meditations so obsessively thought out and controlled they could be deemed too deliberate and fussy or flat-out masterpieces with equal accuracy. But listen to Sweet Tea alongside Rhino's 1992 The Very Best of Buddy Guy and the new record actually sounds stronger. Not necessarily better, but louder, more vibrant, more visceral.
Guy will receive the Blues Foundation's lifetime achievement award in October, and the timing couldn't be better. At 65, Guy finds himself at a career peak. B.B. may still be king, but Buddy Guy is now the heartbeat of the blues. n
Amphitheater & River Park
Tickets: $15 in advance
$19 at the gate
$33 for three-days
Friday, August 24th
Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings
Emerging Artists Stage
Dead Tight Five
Saturday, August 25th
Dust For Life
Drivin' N' Cryin'
Emerging Artists Stage
Sammy's Good Eye
Crash Into June
John Hiatt and The Goners
Emerging Artists Stage