On Wednesday, the Akron Civic Theatre will play host to an icon and an acolyte of the electric Chicago blues when rock hall and blues hall of famer Buddy Guy brings his feral guitar playing and soulful singing alongside a youngster — singer/guitarist Jonny Lang — for an evening of fretboard fireworks.
The tour isn’t the first time that Guy, 76 years young, and Lang, a former teenage blues savior who is now a 31-year-old father of three, have performed together. Lang appeared on Guy’s 1998 album Heavy Love and more recently the two toured alongside pedal-steel maestro Robert Randolph and other guitarists as part of the Experience Hendrix Tour that quickly sold out the Civic a few years ago.
Guy is unquestionably an icon of Chicago blues. The native Louisianan was influenced by T-Bone Walker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Guitar Slim and other seminal blues men.
In 1958, Guy headed to the big city where he hit the club circuit and gained a reputation for his attacking, very electric style and onstage antics that included walking through the crowd and playing solos while walking on top of the bar.
He cut a few unsuccessful sides on an obscure label before joining the blossoming Chess Records stable, which counted legendary songwriter/bassist Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Etta James and other eventual legends. Guy was a popular sideman for the label and cut several singles, but founder Leo Chess found Guy’s style simply too aggressive and only a few singles were released until the must-have early ’90s compilation The Complete Chess Masters.
By the late ’60s, Guy was still more popular in Chicago and in blues circles than nationally, but his influence was being heard in the playing of several soon-to-be rock legends such as Jimi Hendrix (who borrowed some of Guy's showmanship), Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton.
During the early ’70s, Guy also recorded a series of albums with harmonica legend Junior Wells, including Buddy Guy & Junior Wells Play the Blues, another must-have album for any burgeoning blues collection.
Guy continued to tour and release good, if standard, blues albums throughout the 1970s, but while his acolytes were becoming multimillionaires, Guy’s recording career was floundering. Through much of the ’80s, the blues legend found more touring success in Europe than in his home country.
But while Guy was having a tough time professionally in the mid-1980s, seemingly out of the … um … blue, the genre regained popularity with new hot-shot guitarists such as Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray. In 1989, Guy opened his successful nightclub Legends in Chicago, which became a hangout for traveling and local musicians and helped remind Americans that Guy was still alive and still ripping.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Guy was among a group of influential blues legends who were “rediscovered” (John Lee Hooker and Albert Collins also experienced career renaissances) and successfully reintroduced to the pop world. Guy was receiving endorsements from acolytes such as Clapton who said in Musician Magazine in 1985: “Buddy Guy is by far and without a doubt the best guitar player alive … he really changed the course of rock and roll blues.”
Vaughan is quoted in numerous online sources as saying “Without Buddy Guy, there would be no Stevie Ray Vaughan.”
Guy’s 1989 album, Damn Right I Got the Blues, laden with superstar guests including Clapton, earned Guy a Grammy Award for contemporary blues album and brought him back to the spotlight under which he is so comfortable.
Since the ’90s, Guy has steadily released albums mostly of boilerplate Chicago blues but he’s also offered a few welcome left turns on albums such as 2001’s Sweet Tea — a wild and fuzzy collection of Junior Kimbrough and other Louisiana delta artist tunes — and the semi-psychedelic rhythm and blues of 1998’s Heavy Love.
More recently, Guy has released two albums, the Grammy-winning studio album Living Proof from 2010 and last year’s Live at Legends, the latter of which is a solid snapshot of what fans are likely to get from Guy’s set on Wednesday at the Civic. Legends includes his entertaining stage banter, a set list with covers of classics as well as tunes from his resurgence and even some musical nods to “the British guys” and “the guy in New York” in the form of covers of Cream’s Strange Brew and Hendrix's Voodoo Chile.
Guy’s tour partner Jonny Lang doesn't have his elder's storied biography or catalog having released six albums since his 1995 debut and its hit single, Lie to Me, recorded at the tender age of 15.
Lang, a Fargo, N.D., native who moved to Minneapolis to find fame and fortune, appeared on the national scene around the same time as fellow teenage firebrand guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Both were promoted as the newest young blues saviors. The blues, of course, didn't need saving and Lang (and Shepherd) received some push back from fans and critics who didn’t appreciate being informed by record companies who was going to save the music they loved.
But though Lang never reached the commercial heights of say Stevie Ray Vaughan, he did earn a 2006 Grammy for his gospel-inspired album Turn Around and has built a respectable reputation among fellow musicians and fans who enjoy his contemporary take on the blues and rock.
He has more guest appearances on others’ records than solo releases, but his resume is filled with recordings and jams with names such as Herbie Hancock, Willie Nelson, Lee Ritenour, Cyndi Lauper and Vaughan’s old group Double Trouble.
Just as with Guy, Lang’s most recent release is a live document, Live at the Ryman, from 2009. The album covers his entire catalog including Lie to Me and clearly shows the R&B, gospel and straight-ahead-rock influences in his music. Also like Guy, Lang can play up the fireworks on the guitar. Though his style is considerably more measured, Lang still makes it wail and moan and his singing voice — which at 15 sounded very much like a teenage white kid straining to sing like a middle-aged black dude — has matured into a more natural, soulful-sounding instrument highlighted on the album’s extended version of the soul/gospel ballad Red Light, highlighting Lang’s surprisingly malleable falsetto.
Presumably at some point in the evening, the guitarists will join forces on some hoary, blues classics and engage in some friendly head-cutting, a time-honored blues tradition.
And though Buddy Guy and Jonny Lang are separated by nearly 50 years of life and musical experience, when they strap on the guitars and step on stage, they are blues brothers.
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. … Go figure.