I first started becoming aware of Buddy Guy around 1990. The gamble I had taken on going to grad school was paying off, and things were looking good. We had just moved to Albany, after a year of career-related separation, Lee remaining in Syracuse while I served out a fellowship with the New York State Senate that had given no guarantee of future employment. Now, future somewhat assured as I took on a staff position with the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee, we took an apartment in a relatively modern building on Bertha Street. We both had jobs, we had a car and a half, we were living together in a comfortable place in a decent neighborhood very close to an independent theater, walking distance from my job (and on the bus line, too).
One nice thing was that we were back in range of Saratoga Performing Arts Center, which had been an important part of our teen years for each of us. It’s a summer venue in the beautiful Saratoga Spa State Park, originally opened in 1967 and then very much focused on the fine arts, including summer residencies of The Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York City Ballet, and the New York City Opera, all of which were still going strong in 1990. But it has also a long history of “pop” concerts, mostly middle of the road but acts with large appeal that help to pay the bills. And while my high school experiences at SPAC included magical cultural events like getting to see Mikhail Baryshnikov dance “Jewels,” it also included modern classics like The Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills & Nash.
In the summer of 1990, Bonnie Raitt was having her moment in the sun. Her “Nick of Time” album had gone to #1 in 1989, and she won Grammies for Album of the Year, Best Female Rock Vocal Performance, and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. She was somewhat suddenly a star. And as a star, she was headlining a huge blues festival held at SPAC on August 4. I’m not clear whether all or just some of this lineup appeared on her other dates that summer, but at that day-long festival at SPAC in addition to Bonnie Raitt, we got to see Charles Brown, John Lee Hooker, Irma Thomas, The Jeff Healey Band, John Hammond, Dr. John, and Buddy Guy.
I’ve said before that I had long wanted to get into the blues, but hadn’t quite known how to go about it. I’d dipped my toe in with records by The Blues Brothers and Robert Cray, and I even had the Jeff Healey Band record already. Well, this festival is what launched me into the blues. I heard John Lee Hooker for the first time (other than his cameo in “The Blues Brothers” movie), and about lost my mind. I heard John Hammond for the first time: same. Add to that the perfection of Charles Brown and Irma Thomas and the bayou blues of Dr. John and honestly, by the time we got to Bonnie Raitt her set, which was great, hardly mattered.
But before we did, we saw Buddy Guy. And as much as John Lee Hooker and John Hammond had each just killed, Buddy Guy absolutely blew the roof off the dump. (We were on the lawn, where it was safe.) His guitar was soaring. This was hot, electric Chicago blues and, as the kids who were brought up on “Toy Story” say, I had found my moving buddy. (Moving Buddy Guy?)
So then I started scouring the record store for blues releases (by then I was only buying CDs). I picked up several Alligator compilations that I played to death and continue to play. I bought every new John Lee Hooker release I could find, as he had an exceptionally productive period in the ’90s. And I started buying Buddy Guy discs as well, and Buddy kept returning to the area. We dubbed one year the Year of Buddy Guy because he was playing nearby so often, but it’s no longer even clear what year that was, as it seemed to happen several times. He was playing at a free festival in downtown Schenectady, he was playing SPAC again, he was probably at Tanglewood . . . he was everywhere. That was fine. He released three great records in quick succession: “Damn Right, I’ve Got The Blues,” “Feels Like Rain,” and “Slippin’ In,” as well as a disc with Junior Wells, “Alone and Acoustic.” These CDs got huge amounts of play, and then my musical direction changed a bit as we had kids, and I’m not sure I was seeing his later releases, especially once Records N Such, which had an excellent blues section, was taken over by RecordTown/FYE in 1993.
But I never had a Buddy Guy record until 2018. My friend Shawn, who hadn’t yet opened his own weekly pop-up record store, promised to show me the way to Shady Dog, a store hugely important to his life, in ways that Syracuse’s Desertshore was to mine. So we went down there one day and the very first record that popped out at me was this one. I had known it was being released but hadn’t given it much thought until I saw it there, brand new and shiny, and decided immediately it would be a birthday present for Lee. (You may have figured out that if I give my wife a record as a present, I get much of the benefit, but trust me, she loves Buddy Guy.)
I’m generally leery of albums that prominently feature big-name guests with cover credits — it just doesn’t generally result in particularly good music, and it often detracts from the work of the album’s headliner. So given that this was hyped at the time for appearances by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Jeff Beck (as well as someone I don’t know named James Bay), my reaction was my usual for an all-star guest star album: pass. But then I saw it there on vinyl and thought, how badly could they mess up Buddy Guy? And the answer is, not at all.
He was about 81 years old when he recorded this, and a lot of it is reflective, and listening to it last night, it suited my mood more than ever. Buddy Guy was one of the young men of the Chicago blues (he sings about not trusting Muddy Waters with his cognac), and now he’s nearly the last of the old guard. I was young once too, and now I’m not, and I’ve been feeling it a lot this past year or two. Buddy sings “Just a few good years / Is all I need right now.” Hard not to feel that.