23 February 2009

Risking my life for the blues

The weather forecast could have gone either way, really. Rain...or snow. (Well, I guess it could have gone three ways, this being Maine...the third option being the dreaded mix.) Lobsta and I perused yesterday's weather websites like trained meteorologists, scrutinized the New England map with swirling green/pink menaces bearing down, looked at the iffy temps, shrugged, and pretty much ignored all of it.

Because it's Buddy Guy and BB King. And Lobsta scored these tickets Friday after weeks of prodding Ticketmaster.com to no avail. You know the drill: tickets not currently available try again closer to the date of show x 100, and then improbably, she snagged floor tickets. GA, scramble for position...our favorite kind. Even better: at the brand-new Boston House of Blues (which used to be the Avalon, scene of one of our great John Mayer Trio escapades).

Let me briefly pause this narrative. The blues did not come to me via my storied musical DNA. I cannot recall any instance where my mother extolled this genre, except when one of her heroes performed blues in a shinier, more glamorous jazz context (cf. "C Jam Blues"). Truth be told, I think the blues were too soaked and earthy for her. Not to mention, the electric guitar was never a clarion call to her musical ears.

I have come to the blues entirely on my own. Clarion call, siren, seducer, compulsion: the myriad tones of a wailing electric guitar are all of these for me, and muse besides. When those tones are slowed, bent, and rhythmically pounded in service to blues music, I am literally physically moved (Lobsta, Marcy, and Gret would correct that to mov-ing. Herewith a quickie public apology for making them endure my dancing, swaying self.)

I feel like I've backed into the blues, though. Accessed them through a nondescript side door that whiteboy rockers opened to me, from Cream to Zep, Hot Tuna to Stevie Ray, and then this whole John Mayer thing. Over the course of 20 shows since 2003, Mayer has spoken to me most clearly in his blues voice of guitar rambles and strokes that lay bare raw emotion. I've come to understand how that voice is something he learned from others, whose output and stories I should know better.

Back in 2005, Lobsta and I were blessed to have attended a John Mayer Trio show in Chicago with an unannounced special guest: Buddy Guy. I knew who Buddy was, but it was in a distant, yes-he's-a-legend way. Seeing Buddy perform snapped me right to attention. "The woman I love, man, you know she's kinda big and fat. And what I like about the woman is kinda...gooood like that." Toss the skilled guitar work in with those lyrics, et voila: sex on a stick! I was galvanized. And grooving in my GA floor space, you bet.

Given the opportunity to see Buddy again--and with BB King added in, a stone legend--I was thrilled. Ergo (back to the narrative), pffffft to the weather, let's get into Daisy (Lobsta's trusty VW Bug) and point her south.

We arrived just 30 minutes before the doors opened. Quite a long line already snaked outside the venue despite the drizzly, freezly rain, and we added ourselves to the end. (This constrasts with various JM Trio outings, when we arrived by noon in order to be as close to first-in-line as possible.) Circumstances hadn't allowed us to get there any earlier, so we were fine with that--just to be in the room and witnessing these players was going to be enough.

Fast-forward to showtime. For reasons I still can't quite get my head around (as they did not involve pushing, elbowing, or even insinuating), Lobsta and I ended up one person away from the stage, immediately to the right of the mic. As close as you can get without touching wood, as I like to say. This was always a good-luck spot for our GA Mayer shows, and Lobsta and I stood there incredulous to have scored it at this more-historic blues moment. Buddy Guy and his band took the stage, and we were looking right in Buddy's eyes, watching his hands work the guitar neck and strings, in his space. Buddy combines leer with lilt, aggression with caress, insouciance with authority. Sometimes he howls, and other times he brings up his fists and oooooweeees with glee. And he's agelessly sexy, something I first witnessed in Chicago, but realized more fully last night.

His set included "Love Her With a Feeling," "Best Damn Fool," "Someone Else is Steppin' In," and "Feels Like Rain" (the latter is a song that Lobsta and I both associate with our mothers' passing, and his emotive performance brought us to to tears). He played "Skin Deep," the thoughtful title track to his newest LP, and there was reverent silence in the capacity-filled House of Blues. But after about an hour of burning up the stage with his tight band, he added one more player: a 9-year-old prodigy named Quinn Sullivan. "Who's Gonna Fill Those Shoes" is the duet they play together, but Buddy backed off many times and let an unassuming, fantastically gifted boy own the spotlight and the crowd. This extended what I've already seen with Mayer and Guy together, and I can assure you it's not about master and student. It's about legacy and camaraderie, and hope besides. I was able to look Quinn in the eyes just as easily as I'd been doing with Buddy, and as I grooved along to his playing, I could see an endearing acknowledgement on Quinn's part that he was having an effect on the crowd. He was authentic, not a show pony.

One last tidbit from the Buddy portion of the show: he noticed me and my ceaseless, blues-fueled dancing. I may not be a looker in traditional ways, but it's fair to say I do have fine rhythm. So I'm proud to report that Buddy sang this bit to me: "I'm the one and only...I'm the one man that you won't forget. I can make a bulldog kiss a pussycat, I'm the best damn fool you ever met." Awww yeah.

When Buddy's set was done, the stage crew effected a rapid and surprising transformation to get ready for BB. I didn't have any foreknowledge of BB's concerts, so I didn't realize there'd be a horn section and a formal feel to the unit. Every player to a man was attired in a bespoke suit or a tux. The atmosphere in the club shifted, and I'm not sure I can explain quite why. Buddy commands a roadhouse, to be sure. For BB, something closer to a concert hall takes shape around his stage. What I did know to expect was the folding chair that his crew member placed exactly in front of me. What a thrill just seeing that!

I wondered whether BB might be diminished these days. I had just seen him on the Grammys, and he hung back a tad that night, letting fellow soloists have more axe time. Well, wonder no more. He was an astonishment from the second he took the stage. Among my surprises were the timbre of his voice--rounded, nuanced, not rattled by age at all--and the tastiness and invention of his playing. (Very Count Basie, that.) And again, the eyes had it--I could see them so well from my vantage point. Not dimmed, his eyes flash when he's passionate (and he delivered a few monologues in addition to his singing). And his eyes frequently warm with sentiment. He has a fatherly bearing, and his joy is evident.

BB's band was smoking. His rhythm section was funked up and supple, and the horn players are locked together. His keyboardist was not as audible from my side of the stage, but he looks to be a contemporary of BB's, and he played some sweet solos. My mom's chief complaint against classic blues might involve a statement like, "It doesn't swing" (she unpacked that one a lot). Well, BB's band swings, syncopates, and jumps. I wish Mom could have heard it (but from much farther away--the volume where I stood would have overwhelmed her).

Another thing that surprised me about BB: his sexiness factor is right up there with Buddy. When he sings about how to love a woman, a lifetime of learning-by-doing is in his voice and on his face. The guitar licks that accompany him are knowing indeed. And the fact that he must sit to play means nothing, nothing at all.

At one point, BB enticed the entire crowd into singing along with him, and the choice of song was stunning...a lullaby. He explained that this song is how he feels about the woman he loves.

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,
you make me happy when skies are gray.
You'll never know, dear, how much I love you,
please don't take my sunshine away.

Hearing a full house of jaded concertgoers sing so sweetly, and so surely, was amazing. The fact that this was a set piece, as are many of BB's asides and monologues, does not undercut its power.

BB moved me the most with a Blind Lemon cover, "See That My Grave is Kept Clean". His delivery reminded me of other elders I've known whose relationship with mortality was honest and unsparing. BB brought that home by acknowledging that his children do not like to hear him play this song. It is the distilled essence of blues.

At 11:15, more than three hours after the show started, BB stood up with assistance, and slowly bade the crowd farewell. His band filed off the stage, and the room emptied remarkably rapidly. Lobsta and I stood around for about ten minutes, dazed at the expanse of concrete that had moments ago held scores and scores of people. We felt privileged to have experienced this show at such close range. Gradually, we made our way to Daisy, and commenced a death-defying drive north into a full-on blizzard. The roads were chunky with a layer of ice, then coated with blowy, greasy snow. Eighteen-wheelers and 4WD trucks swept past us at ridiculous high speeds, as Lobsta kept the speed at 40 and gripped the wheel. Getting from Boston back to Portland took us four agonizing hours. We saw multiple accidents and did not see many plows or sanders. Hence, the title of this piece is as true as the music I'm honoring. And it was worth the trip...in every sense.

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