Tuesday, June 1, 2010

SONG #118: I Smell A Rat

Buddy Guy, Stone Crazy!, 1981

Buddy Guy has enjoyed almost two decades of "elder blues statesman" now.  He has recorded and toured with Eric Clapton, made a series of major label records, been revered up and down and all around, and I couldn't be happier for him.  He seems like a genuinely nice guy who more than earned his right to play to adoring crowds and make a little money in his golden years.  Frankly, Chicago Blues needs him-- he's a great face for the city and its major musical export.  That said, I haven't liked ANY of the music he's put out in the last twenty years.  There is nothing, and I mean NOTHING, worse than politely played blues music.  I find it so antiseptic and boring that I get an immediate headache.  Everything great about Guy's approach to the guitar was cleaned up and edited out of his last however many records (I lost count).  They are depressingly unlistenable-- music for libraries and museum collections.

It's doubly depressing in Guy's case because he was the real deal, one of the grittiest players of his generation.  And that's the interesting part of this story.  Buddy's career was not a steady arc from clubs to arenas.  Before Buddy made his comeback in the early 90s, he, well, "went away."  For almost two decades, Buddy Guy was a forgotten player who was occasionally mentioned in interviews by guys like Keith Richards, but like so many players of his generation, Guy had it rough for a long time.  His inferior white counterparts were playing blooze boogie to stoned throngs of rock air guitarists, while Guy was still hammering away at the old chitlin' circuit and playing to handfuls of purists.  And when the racist music industry finally re-embraced black music, it was disco, not the blues, that they went for.  To Guy's incredible credit, he bided his time, got even better, and when the window of opportunity re-opened, he played his way through it.

This song, the opening track of Guy's most consistent record and the last good one he has made, marks the intersection point between forgotten Buddy Guy and rediscovered Buddy Guy, between raw, unedited Guy and the made-for-VH1 version you hear now.  Guy recorded this record for Alligator Records, a Chicago label started by Bruce Iglauer basically to put out a Hound Dog Taylor record ("Give Me Back My Wig," for you Stevie Ray Vaughan fans that think he wrote that song and invented blues guitar).  Iglauer quickly assumed the mantle of trying to get a generation of authentic Chicago blues players on tape with as little studio meddling as possible.  As a result, the Alligator Records catalog up until about 1987 is chock full of really listenable and gutbucket blues performances.  In my opinion, this album is the best Alligator Records released as well.  Sadly, in 1990, the label actually started to turn a profit, so what did they do?  You guessed it-- they hired better studios, spent more money, and scrubbed the soul and the authenticity right out of the recordings.  So sad-- Alligator almost overnight became unlistenable in the 90s as well.  They made records for an imagined crossover audience, not for themselves, and that was that.

This album also marks the moment that I first became aware of Buddy Guy, thanks to the student bookers of the Haverford College concert series.  For a tiny little school, we had some very cool bands come through in my four years there (as well as some REAL clunkers-- anyone else remember Blind Idiot God?).  One freezing winter night, Buddy Guy and his hired-gun quartet came to sleepy Suburban Philadelphia and absolutely blew the house down with one of the best and funniest shows I've ever seen.

First of all-- Buddy was not a slick presentation in 1988.  He looked like a guy that had been living in bars for 20 years.  His haircut was truly a relic-- his jheri curl put Erik LaSalle's in Coming To America to shame.  

"But baby, it's our engagement party...."

He was wearing a polka dot shirt that has since become a trademark, and had a wireless guitar, allowing him to sprint into the audience and start soloing in someone's very startled face.  Guy is the Keith Jarrett of guitar players, growling along to his own playing.  Once you get used to it, it's totally endearing, but the first time you see it, it's like watching someone who is about to strangle his guitar and stomp offstage.

Guy also was working through his frustrations at his anonymity.  My favorite moment in the show occurred when he stopped a song in the middle and said, "Hey, you all like Eric Clapton?"  When we cheered back, his said, "I taught that boy how to play!  I can do Clapton better than Clapton!"  He then powered into "Sunshine Of Your Love" and tore it apart for about five minutes.  Then BAM!  "How about Hendrix?  You like Hendrix?"  Cheer.  "I can do Hendrix!  Hendrix stole that stuff from ME!"  And then five minutes of "Purple Haze" or "Voodoo Child" or something like that.  It was all terrific.  LOOK AT ME, DAMMIT!!  YOU NEED A GUITAR HERO, LITTLE WHITE KIDS? I'M RIGHT HERE!!  Even with his journeyman band, he killed.  (Conversation between me and the sax player after the show.  Me:  Hey, man.  Great show!  Him: (Ten second pause).  Where are the joints?")

It worked on me.  I went out the next day and bought this record (at the time, his most recent record!), and while it hasn't aged that well, "I Smell A Rat"  is still a great performance and showcases Guy's talent.  It has Guy's terrific signature style, lots of distortion and treble, and TONS of growling.  This is the album that finally allowed him, a decade later, to have the hero moment he deserved.

And hey, it's not like Eric Clapton has made a good record in 36 years, either.  But that's another blog.

LINK:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y5v9ksCtVJ0


  1. GREAT post. You forgot that Buddy took a break between sets. In the first set Guy just absolutely tore the place apart. Fast and faster he ripped through one 3 minute song after another. Before he left the stage after the first set he asked on mike if anyone had any weed. After a 30 minute intermission the band came back "significantly mellowed" and played slow blues jams for 45 minutes and then wandered off stage. It was truly a one of a kind experience. Our friend Eric Becker attributes this post concert quote to me: "I have seen the face of God AND IT IS BUDDY GUY."

  2. Andrew ClevengerJune 3, 2010 at 7:52 AM

    Alas, I missed the aforementioned gig, which sounds pretty amazing. Memorable, to say the least.

    After reading this post, I checked my own collection, and found that I have two Buddy Guy CDs, Feels Like Rain and Slippin' In (1993 and 1994). And when I put them on, I immediately remembered my issue with Buddy Guy, which was pointed out to me by my guitar-playin' pal (and superlative musician himself) Dan Cohen, who was two years behind me at Haverford: Guy's guitar sound in the 1990s is AWFUL.

    There's something about the combination of the punched-up treble and the ping-y Strat sound that just hits my ears the wrong way. The older recording that Jeff is writing about doesn't have the same issue; I'd bet money that Guy's playing a hollow-bodied Gibson (as pictured on the album cover).

    Exhibit A: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0o0oNLcKoZ0

    Close your eyes when you listen, and see if you can pick out Guy's guitar. Beck and Clapton, also playing Strats, don't sound nearly as jangly and tinny. I don't mind Guy's playing, but I have a tough time getting past the sound of his guitar. I'm all for having a signature sound, but there's no need to make your guitar sound so obnoxious that it sticks out quite so badly.

    Jeff and Ben, do either of you remember what he was playing at Haverford?

  3. I love this album. Love it. And I agree that I Smell a Rat is the high point. But I still fall back to A Man and the Blues as my favorite Buddy album. One Room Country Blues Shack is as good as it gets. Otis Spann, oh man....