From our recently inducted rock ‘n’ roll hall of famer, the late great Stevie Ray Vaughan, to our current hometown hero Gary Clark Jr., Austin’s passion for electric blues is deeply entwined with our city’s identity. Consequently, it’s no surprise that 78-year-old Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy was greeted with raucous cheers the moment he stepped onto the stage at ACL Live on Friday night, packing a blistering barrage of furious guitar licks. The excitement in the crowd grew wilder as he stepped to the mic belting the chorus to his 1991 hit “Damn Right I Got the Blues” with his booming, weathered voice.
Perhaps more than any other pop music form, blues, the granddaddy of jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, ages incredibly well. The years seem to have taken little toll on Guy’s energy or his astonishing dexterity and his performance on Friday was a master class in dynamic levels and crowd control.
“I’m gonna play something so funky you can smell it,” he told the audience, coaxing silence as he began a 10-minute winding ramble into “Five Long Years” with a whisper of a guitar solo, gradually building it into a boisterous jam with plenty of quick drops and on-the-dime stops along the way. Guy’s backing ensemble, the Damn Right Blues Band, were a rock solid powerhouse and throughout the night he graciously offered them each time to show their own chops.
He was colorfully conversational peppering his performance with snippets of stories behind some of the traditional tunes he covered. He was also gleefully obscene, cursing like a sailor and chortling at the occasional unrepeatable joke he managed to slip in. He used a drumstick to slide his fretboard and flipped his guitar over to begin a song by swaying his body allowing the strings to whine softly as they rubbed against his shirt. From a lesser artist these things might seem like gimmicks, but from Guy they were evidently drawn from a lifetime spent enamored with the range of sounds emanating from his six string, decades spent inventing new ways to make the guitar sing.
As he tends to do, near the end of his set he stepped off the stage, roaming through the floor level of the audience and delighting those of us on the deck by bursting onto the mezzanine and delivering a rowdy rendition of “Slippin’ In” from the balcony with the crowd below aiding with the chorus. (Venue staff said via social media it was the first time he’d taken his performance to the second level.)
When he returned to the stage he thrilled the audience by bringing out blues harmonica great James Cotton who once served as musical director for Muddy Waters’ band. The two old friends and collaborators riffed beautifully. Then he brought out 16-year-old guitar prodigy, and tour opener Quinn Sullivan and the ensemble took the show out with an epic jam that concluded with “Meet Me in Chicago.”
With his spry spirit clearly intact we can hope Buddy Guy has many more great performances left before he retires, but this certainly felt like one for the ages.