They say that 40 is the new 30, but when it comes to Buddy Guy, 75 is the new 25 –and that’s no exaggeration. The six-time Grammy winner’s energy level is unmatched. Opening his November 10 appearance at the Ridgefield Playhouse with “Nobody Understands Me But My Guitar,” there were portions of the soloing where Guy’s hands moved so fast, so expertly, that many must have been wondering if the long sought-after fountain of youth is actually in the backyard of his Chicago home.
Having outlived most of his contemporaries, Guy puts on a show like no other. Expressive hand gestures and facial expressions, wiggling his body during dramatic string bends, inciting laughter when rubbing the guitar against his torso, leaving the stage and making his way to the balcony – as he did on this night during his version of Albert King’s “Drowning On Dry Land” – are just a few of his tricks.
But even if Guy did away with all the showmanship, he’d still be a joy to watch. Expert in the use of dynamics, Guy often takes his voice and guitar from a scream down to a whisper. His vocals can be loud and rough one moment, and drop straight into a falsetto the next.
When he performed Muddy Waters’ “Nineteen Years Old” about 30 minutes into his hour-and-a-half set, a wave of the hand signaled the band to get silent. Not touching his guitar, Guy did about a minute of sexually suggestive mumbling before finishing with the line, “I’m just trying to make this young thing feel satisfied.” Never boring, he could keep someone with ADD transfixed.
A former session guitarist for Chess Records, Guy recorded with Muddy Waters, as well as Howling Wolf, Little Walter and others. While he usually makes a point to prove he’s far more than an old school Chicago– often closing his shows with spot-on versions Jimi Hendrix’ “Voodoo Chile” or “Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream, Eric Clapton’s former group – Guy elected not to do those songs this time around.
Rather, after treating the crowd to much of his own work, whole songs or pieces of, such as “Slippin’ In,” “Love Her With A Feeling,” “A Man of Many Words,” and “74 Years Young,” off his year-old album Living Proof, he allowed 12-year-old Ridgefield resident Bobby Paltauf to share the stage with him.
Paltauf had come to the venue simply looking to get his Fender Stratocaster signed by the blues master, but when Guy heard him playing, unelectrified, in a hallway backstage, the 7th grader soon found himself inside the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee’s dressing room.
An hour so later, Paltauf was in front of 500 people playing and singing Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Texas Flood.” Guy hung back for a bit before joining Paltauf at center stage to trade licks and smiles with him. He stopped at one point and said to the audience, “That last note I played, I looked in his eyes and he gave me a look like, ‘Whatever you’re doing man, look out.’”
Guy is always one to give young players an opportunity. In fact, an 8-year-old Quinn Sullivan was allowed to share the stage with Guy at the Zeiterion Theater in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 2007. Now 12, Sullivan has since performed on the Oprah Show, appeared on one of Guy’s albums, and done a number of concerts with him. What was refreshing about Paltauf was, simply, the fact he wasn’t Sullivan. In other words, he wasn’t part of the act. It wasn’t rehearsed. It was a student getting a first-time lesson from the master, whom Clapton has called the greatest guitarist alive.
Guy was impressed with the latest east coast talent he ran into. ”I’m gonna have to move out here, cause these kids are something else,” he said.
Turning to Paltauf, Guy added, “You are the one that’s going to have to keep this stuff (blues music) alive.”
Whereas Guy often performs “Strange Brew” at the end of his shows, another song by Cream, he switched it up a bit by ditching his electric guitar for an acoustic. Encouraging Paltauf to let loose, he said, “C’mon now, you’ve got to bring it on.” Once he was satisfied, Guy thanked the audience, put down his guitar, handed out a few guitar picks and walked off stage, letting Paltauf close the show. The middle school student looked puzzled for a moment but then eased back into calm, cool and collected.
Paltauf spoke with the American Blues Scene the week after the show, saying he learned a lot about stage presence and string-bending. His father Robert added that Guy definitely had an effect on his son.
“I noticed that almost instantly, his playing changed from trying to impress people in the first three minutes of playing, with some awesome leads all over the neck, to a much more well-defined single-note picking that is focused on quality instead of quantity,” he said. “Now Bobby is very focused on manipulating the strings by not just bending them, but by bending them at different speeds and pitch. He’s also playing through the amplifier on a more clean channel, versus distortion. This is without a doubt a result of him playing with Buddy Guy that evening.” You can watch Paltauf’s version of “Texas Flood,” and mixing it up with Buddy on youtube.
Ridgefield resident Nancy Pratley, a teacher in Brewster, NY, said Guy “opened up his heart and his stage.”
“That’s what we do every day in our classes,” she excitedly proclaimed. “We want the students to shine. Here was a man, an idol to so many, he let that kid shine. I was crying. I had a tear in my eye.”
Redding resident Brayton Fogerty said it was “nothing but pure enjoyment for both them.”
He added “I wish I had that kid’s guts and chops when I was 12 years old.”