A few years ago Buddy Guy supported B.B. King in Toronto on his annual “Blues Fest” summer trek of outdoor venues. Guy performed that night like a man on a mission, culminating in him sitting down some 200 feet from the stage and playing to those in the cheap seats. Now, nearing the end of a North American tour and with an Australian jaunt on the horizon, Guy still plays like a man on a mission, but he might be the first to tell you he doesn’t know what that mission entails. The end result on this night was a gig that had its moments but more often than not came off like a jam session.
Taking the stage moments after his Damn Right Blues Band warmed up, the energetic Guy, decked out in overalls, kicked things off with “Going Down.” The song made famous by Freddie King seemed to set the blueprint for what was to come over the nearly 100-minute set. Whether it was Guy playing notes just above a whisper or getting loud and quite heavy, the guitarist and his band were playing as if they were in the middle of their set, content in this sort of controlled chaos. “I’m feeling good already!” the boisterous musician told the crowd before churning out some Delta blues with “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man.”
But as much as Guy took the lead throughout the evening, he just as often looked like a seasoned sideman, deferring to his supporting cast for too frequent elongated solos. There was also quite a bit of flying by the seat of the pants, with Guy quipping, “I don’t rehearse. Most of the time I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
One early disappointment was the tender and soulful “I’ve Got Dreams To Remember” from his latest album, “Bring ‘Em In.” While he did a masterful job with the song, at times scatting alongside his guitar licks, knowing Bettye LaVette could have come out for a powerful duet dampened the effort.
Halfway through the set, Guy took his traditional walk into the audience during “Drowning on Dry Land,” getting some youngsters to pluck the strings before delivering a blistering solo as he literally made his way out the door and up to the first balcony. The gesture garnered a standing ovation but Guy stopped the song halfway through. “I’m not going to finish this song but I want you to know I can finish it,” he said.
This piecemeal approach was a mixed blessing, with the set’s nadir being teasers of Cream and Hendrix songs before Guy delved briefly into “Fever.” The homestretch included Phil Guy, Buddy’s brother, who came out for “Damn Right I Got the Blues.” With Buddy signing autographs, Phil and company launched into the punchy, funky “Feeling Sexy.” The oddity of the evening was no encore, leaving fans waiting for more.
As fragmented as Guy’s set was, opener LaVette had no such trouble. The singer, who released “I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise” last year, nearly stole the show with her old-school soul delivery.
Opening with “The Stealer,” LaVette worked the stage perfectly as her funky four-piece backing band accented her strong, captivating vocals. The highlights, however, occurred when LaVette had time to herself to belt out songs like the groovy “He Made A Woman Out of Me.” Other show-stopping moments included a fantastic cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Joy” and her closing a cappella version of Sinead O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” that resulted in a deserving standing ovation.