By Joel Francis
Buddy Guy is to the electric guitar what a match is to kerosene.
The 68-year-old blues legend lit into opening number “Best Damn Fool” like a house afire and closed out the Roots ‘n Blues ‘n BBQ Festival Saturday night in Columbia, Mo. with 90 minutes of barn-burning blues that skimmed through the encyclopedia of the genre.
After starting with a cut from his new album, “Skin Deep,” Guy tore through his classic “Hoodoo Man.” The song culminated with a guitar duel between Guy and his backing guitarist, who was more than capable of holding his own. After whipping the song into a frenzy, Guy put a finger to his lips and hushed both the crowd and his band. In whisper silence he noodled into “Love Her With a Feeling,” which merged with “She’s Nineteen Years Old.”
Guy’s mind is as frenetic as his fingers. He rarely plays a song all the way through, opting to mine the most joyous parts, then skip along to the next number that races through is brain. He treated the audience to a nearly two full minutes of his signature number “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues,” before remembering he played Peggy Lee’s “Fever” at his last gig in Columbia 15 years ago and gave them all of that instead. No one seemed to mind.
“Boom Boom,” a tribute to John Lee Hooker, suddenly inspired “Strange Brew” and a shout-out to Eric Clapton and Cream. Guy hopped offstage and wandered through a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd a block deep and half a block wide to deliver “Drowning on Dry Land” and B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby.”
Like a woman plied with one drink too many, Guy was able to coax things from his guitar beyond its natural limits. Armed with a cream-colored Fender Stratocaster instead of his trademark polka dot model, Guy hopped on a wah wah peddle to riff over the intro of Jimi Hendrix’ “Voodoo Child” before launching into Muddy Water’s “I Just Want To Make Love To You.”
The night ended with “Out in the Woods,” a boast about taming wild beasts. It was a great closing number, but also slightly redundant – at this point, Guy no longer had to prove how bad he was.
In a perfect world, Bettye LaVette would be enjoying the same kind of success Tina Turner receives today.
After 47 years in the business and five years into her renaissance, LaVette’s raspy voice – no doubt enhanced by years of working smoky dives – is informed and enhanced by the pain and frustration of her wilderness years.
Her performance of early songs like “My Man – He’s A Lovin’ Man,” “Let Me Down Easy” and “Right in the Middle (Of Falling in Love)” hint at the career that could have been. But Lavette is not bitter. She can deliver a line like “I’ve been bruised, hurt and cheated on/ but still they couldn’t break me” (from “Close As I’ll Get to Heaven”) with both honesty and a smile.
Clad in a sleeveless black shirt and tight black pants, LaVette swayed and strutted across the stage channeling every note from her band, completely invested in every lyric. She added a swagger to her reading of “Joy” that songwriter Lucinda Williams could only dream of. Likewise, she added a level of sensuality to Leonard Cohen’s “You Don’t Know Me At All” unheard in the original. The sashay of her hips to a sizzling guitar solo said more than any of the verses.
Two years ago, LaVette put on a breathtaking performance at the Folly Theater in Kansas City. She was even better in the open air in Columbia and her band was the difference. For the earlier date, LaVette was backed by musicians who, like her, had been catapulted from juke joints to concert halls. Unlike her, they were not ready for the spotlight. Her new, four-piece band was tighter, funkier and able to keep up. They added a wash of psychedelic soul to “Sleep to Dream” and a superb gospel feel to “Choices.”
LaVette closed her 75-minute set with a riveting a cappella performance of a Sinead O’Connor song that summed up her life today: “I have all that I requested/And I do not want what I haven’t got.”
Drummer Doyle Bramhall grew up playing with the Vaughan brothers, so it makes sense that his Texas blues oscillate between the smooth strut of Jimmie and the rough and rocky bluster of Stevie Ray. Unfortunately, there’s not much in between.
His five-piece band could turn it up when needed, like on a spirited cover of “Keep A Knockin’,” but for the most part they were content to keep the meat in the smoker instead of taking it out and slathering on the sauce.
Bramhall’s hour-plus set ran through songs from his solo catalog like “Top Rank Boxing” and “Cryin'” and a couple numbers he wrote with Stevie Ray. Predictably, “Change It” and “The House Is A Rockin’,” which closed the set, drew the greatest cheers.