If you haven't seen Buddy Guy in concert, you haven't seen anything. Whatever your short list of artists to see before you (or they) die is, add him. But let's start at the beginning...
The Ravinia is in Highland Park, IL, a northern suburb of Chicago, and is easily the worst place to see a concert I've ever seen. The emphasis there is on SEEING the concert. I bought lawn tickets, which I would think just meant you'd be real far away, like at the Tweeter Center. At Ravinia though, the lawn is several acres large, and there is not one spot on it where you can see the stage. People picnic and chat the whole time, with apparently no interest in seeing the performer itself. Ravinia does a lot of classical music, and this makes sense for that, but not for anything else. There's a pavillion in front of the stage, but I'd say 95% of the people there can't see the stage, and don't want to anyway. Strange. Luckily, though, you could stand behind the pavillion seating and actually get a great view, with no competition. Far closer than I would have been at a Tweeter Center lawn, so it all worked out.
The first act up was The Robert Cray Band. Cray is a blues musician who got big in the late 80's and was touring to support Eric Clapton earlier this year. I didn't know a thing about him going in and was very impressed. Blues music, sure, but with elements of funk, reggae, swing, and even Italien café music (courtesy of his keyboard player). Admittedly, some authenticity was lost having a three-man band consisting solely of grey-haired white guys, but they matched the audience pretty well. Having 25% of the people onstage black was a far higher percentage than you could say for the audience. They held their own, though, but were merely background music for Cray's impassioned vocals and nice guitar work. I don't know what any of the tunes were called, but they were fun to listen to, and far happier than your average blues number.
After a lengthy break, the legend himself came on. He's
shaved his trademark jerry curls off, but in every other way is the same old Buddy. Carrying his trademark polka-dotted guitar (white with black dots however; a little different than normal) he had a shirt and guitar strap to match. He did the whole color-coordinated thing way before the White Stripes. Backed by a four-piece band (all black, in case you were wondering), he tore into his opening number with a ferver. He's the most expressive, vibrant performer I've ever seen, stopping his incredible solos only to violently gesture. He would prance the stage back and forth, pausing only at the microphone when a verse came about. I was expecting the amazing guitar playing, but I wasn't ready for the blasting vocals. He had a microphone, but I'm not sure he needed it. A gorgeous voice, unchanged by age, as demonstrated when he ripped into Hootchie Cootchie Man, a song every blues artist has covered, but became fresh with the energy he put into it. That energy extended to the band, whom he gave ample time to do their thing. The other guitarist came to the front of the stage and started soloing, before Buddy gestured him over. Facing each other, they dueled, soloing quick lines back and forth. Buddy's incredible on his own, but the quality of his band clearly helps to push him to the next level, as they just went back and forth. The guitarist finished by spinning his guitar around and around, ZZ Top-style.
Before the next song Buddy said, "I usually save this song until later in the set, but I'm just feeling so good." It was a feeling he came back to again and again, and with the performance he gave he sure seemed to mean it. After a few verses of the song, he walked off the stage into the pavillion while soloing. Unfortunately, everyone stood up so those of us on our jury-rigged GA behind them couldn't see a thing, but you could follow him by where the audience's heads went. He walked about halfway up the aisle nearest me, tossing out blistering solos the whole time, then paused. I waited for him to keep going up the aisle, but he suddenly appeared at the head of another aisle, after having apparently edged all the way through two rows of seats. He then proceeded to walk out of the pavillion into the lawn, his guitar cord trailing the whole way. And let me tell you, the people on the lawn sure took notice them. If they weren't going to make the effort to see him, he was going to make it for them. It worked too; after he went back to the stage, the crowd around me trying to see tripled in size. They saw that, while the music is amazing, this is a performer you want to see.
He them took things down a bit as he launched into a gorgeous "I've Got Dreams To Remember", off of his 2005 album "Bring 'Em In", which featured some beautiful soloing (and backing vocals) from his keyboard player. It's so great that he gives this band the freedom he does, cause they are at the top of their game. He then launched into Fever, a song I recognized from Dylan's cover in 1980. The highlight here was him going over to the keyboard player and having him try to imitate what Buddy would play. After a few minutes, they switched places, with Buddy trying to play the same lines as the keyboard player. They were both concentrating intently, but grinning the whole time. The audience loved every minute of it.
He did a brief section of John Lee Hooker's classic "Boom Boom", cutting it off with a laugh and talking about Clapton and Cream. If he did a Cream cover next, I didn't recognize it, but it was great anyway. He kept adding some new twist with every song, and this one featured two. First, he soloed using a drumstick instead of a pick. A clever idea, but the amazing thing was, it sounded damn good. I'd heard of him doing this, but thought it was just a novelty act. The second twist was during one of the verses he turned his guitar around and rubbed the strings up and down against his shirt, creating a metallic scraping noise that actually sounded great with the vocals.
A few more great songs before he said he only had one more. It was a short set; he'd mentioned numerous times during it how he'd like to play all night, and next time they called he'd make sure they let him. From the opening 8th fret guitar slide, I knew what the next song was, and was cheering the whole way through. The one song I'd hoped for him to play above all others, but knew he didn't always, "Damn Right I Got the Blues" was everything I'd hoped for. Off of his breakthrough 1991 album of the same name, it is the greatest electric blues song I've ever heard, and that night Buddy reminded me why (as if I'd forgotten). After a couple verses, his hands at his face clenching and releasing, he started soloing faster and faster, going crazy as he led into another song I didn't know, but great of course (sensing a pattern?) Afterwards he walked the stage for a few minutes, tossing out guitar picks while the crowd refused to leave. Finally, he left the stage with no encore, due to the 11:00 town curfew.
I'd expected a great concert, but not one that good. He's an unbeatable blues singer, but he's in the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame for a reason. Half of Jimi Hendrix's stage tricks he learned from Buddy and you could see why he found him an inspiration. Perhaps the biggest testament to his abilities is how he made my experience at an awful venue (to which I'd only go back for a few performance) one of the greatest concerts I've seen in years.