On Wednesday, the stately Akron Civic Theatre was transformed into a raucous sold-out blues joint courtesy of blues legend and rock hall of famer singer/guitarist Buddy Guy and his much younger tour partner and fellow singing ax slinger Jonny Lang.
Guy is known and sometimes criticized for his dedication to showmanship. He's not a stoic bluesman standing at the mike singing his pain. Rather, Guy, 76 years young and dressed dapperly in a loose black button-down shirt, tan slacks and a beige applejack hat, was all over the stage and eventually the theater.
“I don't get here often. But when I do, I'm a let ya know I'm here,” he said.
For fans that have seen Guy before, his randy, occasionally blue stage patter and stuffed trick bag — which includes playing the guitar behind his head, behind his back, between his legs, with a towel, with a drumstick and on top of a speaker box — may come off as shtick. But for first-timers and folks who enjoy a healthy heaping of band/audience interaction, stories and sing-a-longs, Guy delivered.
Oh, he also plays a pretty mean guitar … literally. Guy, who got his start in the 1950s with Chess Records (his Complete Chess Recordings is a must-have for fans of Chicago Blues), was a rock guitarist before they existed. His style and tone are loud, distorted, aggressive and attacking (he broke a string during one solo) and he is not afraid of a little noise, incorporating feedback into his sound.
The set list mixed his takes on blues classics with a few of Guy's signature tunes, such as the set-opening and title track from his 1991 Grammy-winning comeback album, Damn Right, I Got the Blues.
Guy sprinkled in newer cuts such as the shuffling, groovy 74 Years Young and the humorous Let the Door Knob Hit Ya (“where the damn dog shoulda bit ya,” the crowd sang along) from his most recent studio album, 2010’s Living Proof.
Guy, always a bit underrated as a singer, showed that he is not just a blues shouter, singing quietly on Skin Deep and getting funky on a too brief a cappella snippet of Marvin Gaye's Ain’t That Peculiar.
Guy also paid tribute to his forebears and acolytes in a series of loosely narrated medleys.
He took Willie Dixon's Hootchie Cootchie Man and delivered on his promise to “make it so funky you could slap it.” John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom Boom got a too-short workout, along with Albert King's Drowning on Dry Land. Guy then connected the dots between the old blues masters and “the British guys” playing a funky version of Cream’s Strange Brew along with Jimi Hendrix's Voodoo Child.
Still spry, Guy took his usual tour through the venue, covering both sides of the floor before heading to the balcony and eventually making his way back to the stage, soloing the entire time.
Opener Jonny Lang is nothing if not prompt. The time on the ticket said 7:30 p.m., but at 7:27, Lang and his quartet casually shuffled on stage, picked up their instruments and spent the next 80 minutes raining his blues on an appreciative audience.
Lang first hit the pop music landscape in 1997 as a 15-year-old blues wunderkind. His hit tune Lie to Me didn’t make it into his set list, clearly disappointing many fans at the Civic.
Still boyish at 32, Lang has outgrown the wunderkind tag and his music now incorporates gospel, soul and rock. Much of his set was similar to his last release, the 2009 album Live at the Ryman.
There’s no doubt that Lang can wail on guitar. He plays big sustained notes followed by flurries of circular patterns that make the crowd cheer, but he can also play delicately and melodically as he did on the basic 12-bar blues tune A Quitter Never Wins. The set’s centerpiece was an extended version of Red Light from his 2004 album Long Time Coming.
On the 10 minute-plus slow jam, Lang revealed his surprisingly malleable falsetto and a smooth tenor style that provided a nice contrast to his usual constricted-larynx, young blues singer style.
Lang loves to work dynamics and he often brought his talented band to a hushed whisper before building to a crescendo earning several standing ovations from the crowd.
Though their ages are separated by nearly five decades, together Buddy Guy and Jonny Lang are different sides of the blues coin.
Guy still brings the heat with a powerful singing voice, screaming guitar and old-school showmanship, while Lang takes the blues and mixes in a few other flavors for a still satisfying bouillabaisse.
Malcolm X Abram can be reached at 330-996-3758 or by email at email@example.com. He’s also on Facebook as Malcolm X Abram.