Thursday, May 24, 2007

Trips featured top blues acts

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Buddy Guy


Call them mini blues excursions, if you will.

In recent years my wife Sue and I have made overnight trips to see some of the top acts the genre has to offer.

Two years ago we witnessed a terrific double bill in Green Bay featuring blues legend Buddy Guy with young guitar slinger Jonny Lang as the opening act. Meanwhile, we traveled to Marquette to attend concerts by veteran performer John Hammond, as well as Magic Slim, one of the originators of Chicago-style blues.

Going to the Guy/Lang concert on Aug. 25, 2005 was a no brainer. Next to B. B. King and possibly Robert Cray, Guy is the biggest star in blues today. Recording since the late 1950s, he's influenced virtually every major blues/rock guitar player since.

But you might not realize that from his live shows. Guy plays signature riffs from Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan to cheers from the crowd. What's impressive, however, is that Guy influenced those three great players, not the other way around. Given that fact, perhaps Guy should spotlight more of his own material.

Clapton has taken to calling Guy the world's greatest living guitar player. While Guy may welcome the accolade, fans expect him to prove it each time he plays.

At the show at the Oneida Casino Pavilion , the 69-year-old Guy turned songs into lengthy jams, but kept the audience enthralled. He even added to the excitement by leaving the stage and walking through the crowd. He didn't miss a lick as he wandered about with a big grin on his face as enthused fans patted him on his bald pate.

Certainly, Guy deserves his crown as King of Chicago Blues, like Muddy Waters did before him. Guy has been in and out of favor over the decades, but has been on an upswing since the Grammy-winning "Damn Right I've Got the Blues" was released in 1991. He was even inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame earlier in 2005 by fellow bluesmen Clapton and King.

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Jonny Lang

But, who had more to prove, the time-tested veteran or the young upstart? Jonny Lang, just 24 at the time of the this show, made comparisons difficult. Lang and his band put on a low-key acoustic performance that was still entertaining. Of course, Lang performed "Lie To Me," the song that launched his career from the unlikely base of Fargo, North Dakota.

Lang may not have desired comparisons to Guy, but he is as expressive a guitarist as the elder bluesman and sounds like a seasoned player, which in the world of blues is a compliment. With his many talents, Lang should enjoy a long career, barring any missteps.

Hammond and Magic Slim, meanwhile, already have careers measured in decades.

The New York City-born Hammond presented himself in a solo acoustic setting at Marquette's Kaufman Auditorium on April 17, 2004. Touring over 250 days a year, Hammond has dedicated himself to re-interpreting songs by such artists as Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson and Willie Dixon. Besides performing his versions of blues classics, the guitarist also sang one of his own compositions, although he is not known as a prolific songwriter.

Hammond, 61 at the time of the Upper Peninsula show, has been around the music business his entire life. His father, John Hammond Sr., a renowned producer and talent scout, signed Bessie Smith, Count Basie, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to Columbia Records during his career.

As part of his U. P. appearance, Hammond told stories about the songs and the blues personalities he's met through the years and continued the conversation with fans after the show.

Hammond's appearance, and that of Magic Slim and the Teardrops, came courtesy of the of the Northern Michigan University Performing Arts Series.

Slim's show took place Jan. 28, 2006 at NMU's University Center, where the audience had a dance floor available, and they used it. One of last surviving Chicago bluesmen born in Mississippi, Slim is known for his snarling guitar.

Age 68 at the time of this show, the six foot, six inch Slim stood while singing, then sat on a stool for his fiery guitar solos. More than one college student watched in disbelief as Slim demonstrated his enviable fret-work. Although his group has a virtually limitless repertoire, Slim heralded a surge on the dance floor with the highlight of the show, a sweaty version of Wilson Pickett's "Mustang Sally."

Well, there you have a sample of three music journeys Sue and I enjoyed in recent years. The shows demonstrated the blues are alive and well and they can be had close to home, with a good time practically guaranteed.

Maybe it's time you planned a little road trip yourself.

May 24, 2007

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