It was with some trepidation that I spun Buddy Guy’s latest 2-disc effort, Rhythm & Blues. Not trepidation because Buddy has somehow lost his game; at age 76, he can still lay waste to blues pickers a quarter his age. And not trepidation just because I long for the Chess and Vanguard-era Buddy of the 60s and 70s. No, my hesitation stemmed from a press release that emphasized the roster of guest performers on the album. It initially reeked of the tried but tired Carlos Santana Supernatural formula, in which savvy producers pair a legendary guitarist with contemporary chart-toppers, yielding a formulaic old-meets-new collection of radio-friendly but ultimately forgettable tracks.
Thankfully, Buddy fronts the majority of the tunes on Rhythm & Blues, which divides the set list between R&B tinged tracks on Disc 1 and more straight-ahead blues on Disc 2. While Disc 1 may err in the direction of smooth and funky (aided in part by the Muscle Shoals rhythm section), Guy’s massive and gritty Stratocaster tone abounds on tracks like “Justifyin'” and “What’s Up with that Woman,” demonstrating why he had such a profound influence on rock guitarists like Jimi Hendrix. The low-fi, back-alley shuffle of “Whiskey Ghost” is a standout recalling the eclectic mojo of his grammy-winning 2001 album Sweet Tea. Disc 2 opens appropriately with “Meet Me in Chicago,” propelled by a killer riff laid down by session-master guitarist David Grissom. “Too Damn Bad” is classic you-ain’t-got-nothin’-but-yourself-to-blame blues machismo, while “My Mama Loved Me” is a tough-love anthem set to a familiar hoochie-coochie man groove. Guitar geeks will rejoice in the liner notes, which note the instrument Buddy wields on each track; the arsenal includes his signature polka-dot Fender, a Gibson ES-335, and an original ’54 Strat.
While the five collaboration tracks — featuring artists like Keith Urban and Aerosmith — are clearly meant to attract an audience beyond blues afficianados, they fortunately don’t veer too far in the direction of vapid pop, sticking to the album’s overall groove. While initially inclined to loathe the Kid Rock collaboration on “Messin’ with the Kid,” purely by association, even I have to admit that the metal-rapper stayed respectfully true to the classic tune’s original template. That said, I can’t say that Mr. Ritchie really added anything to what Buddy Guy already brings to the table — something that can be said for most of the collaborations on Rhythm & Blues (excepting a soulful vocals-and-guitar exchange with Gary Clark Jr. on “Blues Don’t Care”).
Rhythm & Blues may not be the on the shortlist of albums to which I would direct a Buddy Guy newcomer, but it has its fair share of enjoyable tracks, along with loads of great guitar-playing to boot. Admittedly, I’m still holding out for a straight-ahead Chicago blues album from Buddy, unadulterated by pop pretensions and glitzy studio production. But who am I to argue with the musical direction of Buddy Guy? Damn right.