From concert tours, to radio broadcasts, to telephone interviews – most of Buddy Guy’s professional life is preplanned. When it comes to taking the stage, however, he’s on his own schedule. Being on stage is one of the most comfortable settings for Buddy Guy. His approach to shows makes it obvious. His plan for Saturday’s set? There isn’t one.
“I don’t have a set list,” he said in a recent exclusive phone interview with The Record. “I know most bands and guitar players have a set list, but if I were to have a set list with me when I come there to play, well that might not be what the people there want to hear. Sometimes people will yell out from the audience, ‘Will you play this?’ and I go right into it. I don’t like a set list. I like to look at the faces and see people smiling and I say … get ready, here I come.”
Buddy will turn 79 three weeks after his show in Courtenay, and there’s no sign of him slowing down.
He was in Ontario at the end of April, the tip of South America (Curacao) two weeks later, and New Orleans in between.
He’s played some 40 concerts since March and will do nearly the same amount before the end of the year.
“I haven’t refused a gig since I been playing,” he said. “I remember two years ago, my doctor thought I had a heart problem, in Tokyo. I had to cancel it, and reset it (the date) but I went back and did it. That was the only one I missed since I started traveling, in 1967. I’ll keep going until I can’t give you 100 per cent any more. I want to give you what you pay for.”
Buddy accepts keeping the blues alive is his torch to bear, and it’s a tougher job now than it was when he was young.
“For some reason, young people don’t hear the music that I heard when I was 16,” he said. “When I was first coming to Canada you could hear anything on the radio. You could hear a good spiritual record, you could hear a good jazz record, you could hear a good country and western, or blues. Now, for whatever reason, you just don’t hear blues on the radio anymore.
“For a time I thought it was maybe that the language was a little strong for the younger kids, but when hip hop came out, I said it must be something else. Why they don’t play it, I don’t know. Thank God for satellite radio because… we have to let the world know there once was a Muddy Waters; there once was a Howlin’ Wolf; there once was a Little Walter; and now, there once was a BB King.”
In that regard, he considers festival shows to be even more important these days than house shows. House shows are for his fans – it’s not likely that someone who is unfamiliar with his music will be buying a ticket to a Buddy Guy concert. But festivals, especially multiple-genre festivals like MusicFest, are a chance to introduce his sound to new fans – particularly new, young fans.
“Festivals give me a chance to expose my music to maybe eight-, nine-, 10-year-old kids, who can’t get into the blues clubs,” he said. “I always want to give 110, 120 per cent of Buddy Guy because somebody out there won’t know who the hell I am, but I’m gonna let you know I was here.”
Buddy knows he won’t be around to keep the blues alive forever.
He will have to pass that proverbial torch at some time. There is another solid generation behind him, with the likes of Joe Bonamassa, Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. But what about beyond that?
Buddy’s influence runs deep, even among the youngest of talents. MusicFest fans will be treated to some of that influence, as 16-year-old blues phenom Quinn Sullivan will join Buddy in Courtenay.
Akin to the way BB King took in Bonamassa, Buddy has fostered young Quinn.
“I found him at seven years old. He was playing Clapton, me, BB King, Jeff Beck… and I just said, ‘I gotta expose you, man.’ I remember being with Eric Clapton at Crossroads and Eric was like, he didn’t say it, but he and Jeff Beck just dropped their eyes to say ‘Where did you find that kid?’”
Buddy recalls his first meeting with Quinn. It all started with the wardrobe.
“I was in his hometown in Bedford, Massachusetts. My favourite pattern is polka dots and in walks this little kid wearing a polka dot bandana. So I said ‘Can you play?’ And he didn’t get excited. He just said ‘Yes.’
“So I called him up and he played three or four notes and I said ‘Wait a minute. That can’t be you.’ What a surprise. Shoot, I couldn’t even play a radio when I was seven.”
Sullivan has been spending time touring with Buddy Guy ever since that first meeting, making him a veteran of live performances at just 16 years old.
Buddy said there’s one message he keeps repeating to his young protege.
“I tell him every time I see him: Don’t give up. I had a lot of reasons to give up. I was unknown for … years, before the British guys came and let America know that I had been to England and they heard me play a Strat and it exploded.”
Clapton once called Buddy Guy “… the best guitar player alive…if you see him in person, the way he plays is beyond anyone.”
Courtenay music fans will have that chance Saturday, July 11, at the Comox Valley Exhibition Grounds.
MusicFest starts Friday
The three-day celebration of music begins late Friday afternon, with Lyle Lovett and His Large Band headlining the schedule.
They take the Concert Bowl stage at 9 p.m. for a 90-minute set.
Buddy Guy will be the final performer on Saturday from 11:15 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., following his protegé, Sullivan, who takes the stage at 10:15 p.m. for his own 45-minute set.
Graham Nash is the Sunday headliner. He will be on the Concert Bowl stage at 7:45 p.m. and Leftover Salmon, featuring Bill Payne, will close the festival at 9:15 p.m. Sunday.
For a full schedule, go to www.islandmusicfest.com/