When it’s not a loving fist punching the sky, it’s that pointer finger flying downward in an arc. You know those gestures that come out when people are deeply moved by the blues? The Wellmont Theater became a sea of passionate hand signals when none other than Buddy Guy graced Montclair, New Jersey with his sultry sounds and supreme technical prowess. The fun party atmosphere duly shifted to hushed reverence when Guy was speaking. It turned into tears as he coaxed sinuous licks from his strings. And another hand motion began popping up toward the end of the show: the universal sign for “please sign my record!” People were begging for autographs while Guy was busy playing guitar and singing. He might have signed one when he was down in the crowd. It was tough to see that exchange from above, but it’d be very in character for him to elegantly pull that off mid-song. He definitely let a fan and a security guard play his guitar, even showing them a thing or two without losing momentum. At age eighty-five, Guy is rocking, flirting, dancing, and joking like he’s closer to twenty-five. His insanely packed tour schedule reflects his insatiable vigor onstage.
When you’re trekking out for an absolute icon like Buddy Guy, you can feel pretty secure in getting a top-notch opener. Colin James brought some real blues intensity that made the night feel like a full event. There was a level of intense focus for the Saskatchewan singer/guitarist, whose warm vocals echo the vintage grooves of classic vinyl. Varying his setlists by date, James concocted a ten-song set that vanquished the venue’s impatience. Marty Sammon, who rips up the keys for Buddy Guy, also guested with Colin James and made the opening set even groovier. James’ vast discography lends itself to live surprises. He didn’t touch his top-streamed tracks, and his unpredictable vibe gave us some super-smooth covers: Freddie King’s “Boogie Funk,” Otis Rush’s “It Takes Time,” Morgan Davis’ “Why’d You Lie?” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well.” In a final burst of his contagious upbeat energy, James closed with 2009’s “Man’s Gotta Be a Stone” to well-deserved applause.
During this break, the venue was buzzing with convivial chatter about how far folks had traveled for the show; which of their relatives were most jealous; which Buddy shirt they bought for which friend and so on. All this starstruck excitement erupted into cheers when the legend took the stage. You could sense a whoa-it’s-really-him reaction rushing around the room because Guy is such a force of unmatched talent. His generous long set gave him room to stretch out soloing, show off his skills, and strut with style. Seeing him live is a bucket-list-must that sheds light on how he has influenced generations of guitarists – and the Wellmont seemed to get an extra special show. Opening hit “Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues” seemed satisfyingly lengthy, and was followed by some Guy wisdom and wit. “They don’t play much of this type of blues on the radio no more, unless you’re down south. Why they quit playin’ this, I don’t know. But I’m gonna tell you something before I get too deep into my blues, there’s a little cursing in this one. I didn’t do that before hip-hop came out. Then I found out if you curse, you could sell a few more albums. But I want to play something so funky you can smell it. And it goes like this. Shh!”
The theater went pin-drop silent as Guy shushed his way into a scintillating run of “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” (a Willie Dixon cover). Again and again, just a singular guitar tone from Guy was enough to cause a collective gasp. “They quit playing this kind of blues, but I’m not going to quit playing it. Some of the things we sing may not happen to you, but it happened to someone you know. And if it hasn’t happened to you, just keep living – shit.” A scream-triggering “She’s Nineteen Years Old” by Muddy Waters was a sweet taste of history, since Guy jammed with Waters as a session guitarist at Chess Records in the sixties. It ended amid more loud adoration, and Guy replied happily, “I love you man. To be honest with you, I love everybody. If you think you can stop me from loving you, don’t fuck with me, ‘cause I’ll still love you. Yeah. Wouldn’t it be great if the whole world could say ‘I love you’? And we wouldn’t have to hurt nobody. Yeah, I love you man…I like to make you feel like you’re a part of my show.”
Announcing “Feels Like Rain” (the John Hiatt cover Guy popularized), the hero joked, “I noticed, I’ve been here for a couple of days and …your weather.” He trailed off in a pointed way that resulted in laughter. “So I’m gonna show you some blues now.” As fans belted out the chorus, Guy remarked (pre-solo), “Hello! Oh my. That’s why we’re here tonight! …Shit!” and (post-solo) “The last five weeks, we went from the West Coast to come here. And singing this song, I had to ask people to do it – but you guys are right on fuckin’ time.” The Wellmont crowd was clearly feeling cool as hell having gained his approval, singing along even more confidently after that. A get-up-and-jump cut of “Mojo Hand” by Lightnin’ Hopkins featured exquisite riffing by Guy; so much so that Sammon’s wild piano licks and Tom Hambridge’s crisp drumming started sounding playfully competitive. Guy and his band kept pushing each other into deeper grooves, and right on cue, the audience was nailing the call-and-response portions. Buddy Guy then took his time with more 12-bar blues grit on “How Blue Can You Get?” (by Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers).
A searing cover of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” was enhanced by Guy’s otherworldly tones as he began implementing tools other than his own hands. He first set his guitar atop a road case and worked magic with a drumstick on the strings. Then once he pulled his guitar back onto his body, he hatched some new sounds by strumming with a towel. You’d think this approach would be cacophonous, but it was sonically gorgeous. In terms of piquancy, watching Buddy Guy work was like watching a time-lapse of flowers blooming. He must have felt all the love when the Wellmont sang along to “Skin Deep” with fervor, based upon his recurring wide smile. Guy’s performance of “Someone Else Is Steppin’ In” (by Denise LaSalle) was mesmerizing – and also made for a risqué rock tee at the merch table (“While you were slippin’ out / someone else was slippin’ in”). Another thrill came in the form of “Five Long Years,” a gem that Guy hasn’t busted out much outside of 2016 shows. When Colin James joined Buddy Guy onstage toward the end, exchanging caring expressions and a slew of melodic ideas.
Another unexpected treat was hearing Buddy Guy tell us stories about his childhood. “I grew up on a farm, ladies and gentlemen, and I didn’t know what running water was until I was eight years old. In a little town called Lettsworth, Louisiana. And of course, if we didn’t know what running water was, we didn’t have electricity. So when you ask me, how did I survive without air conditioning – there was no such fucking thing as air conditioning, where I come from, man. The only air conditioning we had was this” – he waved his hand in front of his face, getting more big laughs – ”Do you know what this is?” Buddy Guy could entertain all night and still leave you wanting more by morning, so it was actually vexing knowing it would come to a close. Feelings of frantic affection made the balcony-dwellers rush to the front. They leaned over the railing, hungry for even better views of his hypnotic guitar work.
“You know, I swear to god, I’m going to let you go, but I’ve got to tell you this. Remember that show called Shindig? Remember when they was trying to get The Rolling Stones to do Shindig? And Mick Jagger said, ‘I’ll do it if you let me bring Muddy Waters.’ And remember what white America said then? ‘Who the fuck is Muddy Waters?’ And then Mick got angry and he said, ‘You mean to tell me, you don’t know who Muddy Waters is, and we named ourselves after this famous record, Rollin’ Stone?” Each night I play around the world, I have to explain this because sometimes they didn’t write the truth about music. And a lot of Black people have a lot to do with the music that you hear today, but they kept it hidden,” said Guy. “Thank you for clapping, but I also just wanted you to know. That’s why I’m not a politician. I’m not gonna lie to you. Even if I was qualified, I don’t want that job.”
Article: Olivia Isenhart
Photos: Shayne Hanley