George “Buddy” Guy, born in Louisiana in 1936, started playing guitar on a 2-string diddley bow that he made when he was 5 or 6 he says, he was later given a Harmony acoustic that now resides in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and he has just released his 18th studio album The Blues Is Alive and Well, (RCA Records) and well...it is, and so is he. Truly the last legendary bluesmen that pre-dated rock & roll, and who has influenced legions of other greats including Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck to name a few. He is one of the original forces behind the blues/rock glue that is still alive and sticking.
At 81 years young, Buddy Guy delivers what many consider the best blues album of 2018, cut with a coterie of guest appearances including one of the above-mentioned, Jeff Beck, and other flourishes from Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, and James Bay. The album houses 15 tracks and makes it clear from the get-go, he isn’t resting on his legendary pile of material and awards, he comes right at you with tight licks and soaring solos on his BG Blonde Stratocaster and does not stop till the record’s over.
The record was produced by Tom Hambridge, who also plays drums and composes, with Rob McNelley on rhythm guitar, keyboardist Kevin McKendree, and Willie Weeks on bass guitar - also known as The Damn Right Blues Band. Guy takes a look back over his storied life on tracks like the opener A Few Good Years, where his outstanding voice resonates like it always has, even after much more than a few good years. The ‘mortality’ theme runs through a few of the songs, like Somebody Up There, singing praises to the heavens for keeping him alive through all the hurt in this world, and When My Day Comes, a punchy blues number dealing with the inevitability of his departing “train”. Track 3 Cognac is as tasty as it gets with the help of riff-Gods Richards and Beck leaning into some fine chops to thicken Guy’s blues swagger and crisp vocals. It’s so good you can smell it, “...talking about ‘cony-ac’, liquid gold in every sip, let’s play some blues, while we all take a little nip…”. Three of the best guitarists the world has ever seen in a solo orgy of blues intensity that might make you want to have a drop yourself. The track Blue No More features singer James Bay in a soulful, bluesy duet that slowly rolls right down the groove in your spine; a moving piece written by Hambridge and country star Jamey Johnson with Tommy MacDonald on bass.
Another treat on the plate is You Did The Crime, a slow blues walk where Guy squeezes both a BG Martin acoustic and a Guild Starfire 4S over the sweet harp of Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger (something he’s never been given due credit for).
The Muscle Shoals Horns brass section flourishes on 3 tracks: the title cut The Blues Is Alive and Well, punctuating the melody behind Guy’s soaring solos and McKendree’s touch on a Hammond B3 organ, the Chicago blues blast Old Fashioned hits hard with some signature Buddy Guy guitar shredding backed by a ‘kick ass’ wall of brass. And, End of the Line, “so many of my friends have gone/maybe my time ain’t long/I promise till the day I die /I’m gonna keep those blues alive…”, which seems a lamentation but delivers an uplifting message in a swaggering Chicago blues style, accentuated, again by the solid brass section.
Yet another shining moment comes with the band’s cover of a Sonny Boy Williamson number, Nine Below Zero, classic blues performed with passionate crying solos and handy piano work that moves this along nicely. Then switching gears on Whiskey for Sale, a funked-up blues romp featuring Regina and Ann McCrary on backing vocals, and some fuzz chops on guitar that suit this whiskey-laced song to perfection. The record closes with Milking Muther For Ya, showing that Buddy is a home-grown bluesman to the bone.
The Blues Is Alive and Well is fabulous from top to bottom, built on Guy’s hard-earned lessons of life and sheer genius that make this record essential, and blues/rock, still relevant.