By Ellie Rogers
When a living legend like Buddy Guy releases a new blues album, it’s a significant event. While sitting pretty as the greatest living practitioner of Chicago blues, his latest studio album, The Blues Don’t Lie will be released via RCA Records on September 30th – 65 years and five days after Buddy Guy arrived in Chicago from Louisiana to make his name as a blues musician. With eight Grammys under his belt, it’s safe to say that his mission has more than been accomplished.
But, as this new release proves, Buddy is by no means content to rest on his legendary status. Produced by longtime collaborator/drummer and Grammy winner Tom Hambridge, and featuring an all-star cast of guest vocal spots from Buddy’s buddies including the likes of Mavis Staples, James Taylor, Elvis Costello, Jason Isbell and Bobby Rush – as well as keyboard performances throughout from Reese Wynans – Guy has really pulled out all the stops and brought his A-game to this, his 19th studio album.
Kicking off this mammoth sixteen-track effort is the no nonsense and effortlessly funky ‘I Let My Guitar Do The Talking’, in which Buddy recounts upping sticks from Louisiana and heading for the big city with little more than his guitar, the clothes on his back and a “sixth grade education” to guide him.
Although the story in itself is a truly remarkable one, the song’s real highlight bursts in at the 1:27 mark, when Guy stays true to his word and lets his guitar do the talking for a whole glorious minute and some change. Soaking his fiery lead playing in wah wah pedal treatments is an inspired choice as the effect gives the guitar enhanced expression, and – at times – an almost vocal quality as if it really is talking. Add to this the handful of ad-libbed comments and sounds that Guy sprinkles over the top, and it really feels as if he’s having the time of his life on this opening number. It’s impossible not to enjoy.
The following three songs take on a darker and more melancholic tone. Title track, ‘The Blues Don’t Lie’ points to the omnipresent struggles that come with being human. If not exactly a source of comfort, “The Blues” here is at least a constant in the often challenging and grief-speckled journey that we all make through life. ‘The World Needs Love’ is a loose and rolling shuffle that reflects on the absence of love and kindness in the world today. In this plea for healing and unity, Guy displays some of his most heartfelt and emotive guitar work, conveying more meaning with his fingertips than he possibly could with words.
On ‘We Go Back’ Buddy takes a part nostalgic and part sorrowful trip back to the late 1960s, and is accompanied on the journey by the incomparable Mavis Staples. Staples provides a raw and powerful vocal performance as she conjures her still-fresh memories of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Guy’s licks and leads, which he plays on his signature Blonde Fender Stratocaster, are tasteful and accentuate the mood with subtlety and sophistication.
Elsewhere, James Taylor lends his voice to the smooth, soulful harmonies on satirical groover, ‘Follow The Money’, and Jason Isbell chips in on ‘Gunsmoke Blues’ – a weighty lament that takes aim at America’s out of control gun violence epidemic. It’s worth mentioning that, because Guy’s incendiary Jimi Hendrix-meets-B.B. King guitar stylings have long attracted so much attention, the merits of his vocals have often been overlooked. On this record, however, his voice is captured in fine form – with bags of character, an impressive range and a robust but soothing power.
The record also gets another stellar, if slightly hoarse-sounding, guest vocal performance from Elvis Costello on ‘Symptoms Of Love’ – a lowdown rootsy boogie that evokes the swamp blues stylings of Billy Gibbons and ZZ Top. With its highly chantable call and response vocals and overdriven guitars, this is Buddy Guy in all-out rock n’ roll mode, and at no point during this gutsy performance does he sound like the octogenarian he actually is.
Likewise, several tracks, including the sultry ‘Rabbit Blood’, the energetic ‘Back Door Scratchin’,’ and the buoyantly groovy ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’, find Guy in a youthful mood – unafraid to share a few cheeky innuendos and playful euphemisms. It seems that making music isn’t the only thing that the ebullient Guy is still able to do at 86.
Elsewhere, Guy’s socio-political commentaries are on point. The album’s production also manages to strike a deft balance between contemporary sleekness and gritty, old-school rawness, and the stripped-back solo acoustic performance of ‘I’m A King Bee’ is a fine way to wind down an exceptional album that accomplishes an awful lot.
In fact, Buddy Guy’s The Blues Don’t Lie is about as close to perfect a new blues album as you could ever hope to hear. Spanning a plethora of moods, topics and sounds, and with more dexterous and impassioned fretwork than many players half his age could even dream of mustering, it’s a real blues masterclass.
Looking ahead to awards season, this album could quite possibly spell bad news for anybody else hoping to scoop the ‘Best Traditional Blues Album’ award at the 2023 Grammys. Judging by the beaming smile Buddy’s wearing on the record’s front cover portrait, he just might know it, too.
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“Let My Guitar Do The Talking”