Some Blues Guys

This summer, I’ve mostly been reviewing live shows for Nippertown, several a week.

But I’m talking here about a blues show Aug. 18 in Springfield: Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s Backroads Blues Festival co-starring Buddy Guy and Christone Kingfish Ingram.

My friend Dennis treated me to the show as a birthday gift. Dennis leads a posse of us fans to New Orleans for Jazz Fest and has a genius-level nose for musical fun. After seeing Robert Randolph play a New York club, for example – his first gig outside of church – Dennis told Jordie Herold about the young sacred steel player. Herold booked Randolph to play the Iron Horse in Northampton, Dennis’s town. Randolph’s career then took off: record deal, tours with Eric Clapton, the world.

Dennis at the Steinway in RCA Studio B in Nashville; we were on our way to my first Jazz Fest

So, here is that story of going to see Buddy Guy earlier this month, plus my review of a 2007 Buddy Guy show at The Egg in Albany for the Gazette, plus some back-story.

Backroads Blues Festival Aug. 18, 2022, Springfield, Mass.

Only a lout’s shout of “Freebird!” could stop the blues machine that is Christone “Kingfish” Ingram Thursday at Springfield Symphony Hall. The 23-year-old Mississippi guitarist and singer paused to laugh a bit at this intrusive “request,” then rolled on with extraordinary power and punch.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s Backroads Blues Festival felt upside down.

Based on superior energy and imagination, Ingram should have closed the show but instead opened. Shepherd played second and reigning blues eminence Buddy Guy closed; a classy, respectful move by Shepherd that proved ultimately unkind to Guy. The 86-year-old headliner still impressed when he played and (especially!) sang, but coasted and talked rather too much. Anyone who’s seen him in the past decade could have predicted his every-show promise to play “so funky you can smell it” and salty recollections. Last of the second generation of blues stars, Guy is the B-52 of F-bombs.

Back to Kingfish.

Hailed as THE blues prodigy of this generation, the wide young man did not disappoint. A dynamic powerhouse, he mixed the resonance of the familiar with the electric excitement of the fresh.

Early on, in fact, Ingram evoked one of Guy’s special powers: playing quietly to draw the audience deep into the song. And when he revved, he unleashed soaring flurries of cleanly articulated, fast-flying notes. It wasn’t just speed, either – his solos had form as well as force. Maybe best yet, Ingram makes blues for real, from life, and in this self-expressive, self-exploratory reality is his greatest precocious gift. Whether detonating riff storms or banking his fire in the well-crafted “Another Life Goes By,” “Too Young to Remember” or “Trouble” – which opens as all trouble seems to in the blues realm with “Woke up this morning” – Ingram made music from the soul.

He also made it with an all-aces band: bassist Paul Rogers who went all Larry Graham in his lone solo, flash keyboardist D-Vibes and deep in the pocket drummer Chris Black.

Buddy Guy and Kingfish at Buddy Guy’s Legends in Chicago Illinois, January 18, 2019. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)…

Shepherd also brought the goods alongside and behind him: singer Noah Hunt, keyboardist Joe Krown – a New Orleans eminence most often heard with guitarist Walter Wolfman Washington – and most important of all drummer Chris “Whipper” Layton and bassist Tony Franklin. Layton played in the late, great Stevie Ray Vaughan’s band Double Trouble, and Shepherd’s own music closely echoed Vaughan’s “Texas Flood” tornado style. 

Vaughan’s lone-star shuffles and his own radio hits entertained well, though with less electric dazzle than Kingfish Ingram delivered; a well-made workmanlike and crowd-pleasing show. The opener “Somehow, Somewhere, Someway” then “Everything is Broken” set the mood: a fast shuffle, then a slower one; but by three songs in – “I Want You” – they started to stretch out and the grooves rolled strong. “Kings Highway” segued beautifully with “True Lies” – both set at midnight, both plaintive accusations. But the high-momentum “Heat of the Night” drew Shepherd into his hottest solo of the set, a searing, soaring statement that used repeats to powerful effect.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd from his web site

After the star-time favorite “Blue On Black” and an authentically macho “King Bee,” the early Fleetwood Mac blues “Oh Well” hit like a surprise classic done just right.

Guy started strong with his anthem “Damn Right I Got the Blues” (title of Don Wilcock’s beautifully written and exhaustively-researched biography) and a playfully boastful “Hoochie Coochie Man.” If his dynamic guitar phrasing wowed everybody, his vocals hit even harder. And he wasn’t shy about employing such flashy tricks as plucking the strings high on the neck with his left hand, dropping in a heartbeat from full-blast to poignant whisper-riffs, then back up into deep space, sending out flaming-hot feedback shards.

But soon things started going sideways. Guy spoke with the same conviction he sang, recounting a classically poor Delta childhood for example, without running water until he was 14, chopping cotton in hot fields. At times, though, the recollections lost energy; worse, so did some of the songs. At times he simply stopped, without an ending to the tune, and this dissipated the power of his performance.

The songs were strong but Guy brought his full brilliance only sporadically to them. In “How Blue Can You Get,” he played at his quietly lyrical best, but truncated the song to slide into “Grits Ain’t Groceries,” at first strong and sharp but fading into noisy shtick as he lay his guitar on top of the speakers to play Crean’s “Sunshine of Your Love” on it with a drumstick. “Take Me to the River” also faded in a perfunctory, dismissive way.

Buddy Guy, from his web site

When Guy brought a shaper focus to the music, he imbued it with soul and skill, as in the anti-racist “Skin Deep,” with a singalong that worked.

The audience often shouted-out encouragement. Nonetheless, his set lost its shape and emotional impact, until the realization of the Hall’s curfew dawned uncomfortably onstage.

In a hurried all-star ending, both Ingram and Shepherd returned to the stage, plugged in and played together – but this felt rushed and unsatisfying.

Hats off to Shepherd – who sported a black Steve-Ray-style topper – for bringing both a venerable blues hero and a bright new blues hope on tour with him. But the thing could use some tightening or a shuffling of the sets so Guy played first, and shorter, Shepherd next and Ingram bringing down the house to close.

Buddy Guy at The Egg on Wednesday, July 18, 2007 

ALBANY – Buddy Guy turned 71 this week, and he looked and sounded so strong and soulful at The Egg on Wednesday that everybody wanted whatever he’s having.

The living bridge between the first-generation Chicago giants who mentored him and the rockers who idolize him, Guy was hot right out of the gate in the Stevie Ray Vaughan rumble “Mary Had a Little Lamb,  abruptly stopping to announce “I’ve got the blues; wait a minute, don’t say nothin’” and diving straight into Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man,” without waiting for applause but making its “Everybody knows I’m here” refrain an understatement. 

Everything worked on Wednesday: the high-intensity guitar sting that Robert Cray likens to laughter from space, whispery quiet reveries, the stentorian roar or soft falsetto. Guy built towering structures or tidy miniatures with equal and astounding skill. His band more than just kept up. The sturdy undertow of Orlando Wright’s elegant bass locked with the crisp clatter of Tim Austin’s drums, a mountain of a man with the shoulders of a polar bear. Keyboardist Marty Sammon and second guitarist Cornelius Hall both supported and soloed, but when Guy said “Help me” to launch a Hall solo, it was a compliment, not a plea.

Guy pleaded for love, howled his pain and worked hard to entertain – with a showy foray into the crowd in “Drowning on Dry Land” and flashy guitar echoes of John Lee Hooker (“Boom Boom Boom”), Eric Clapton (“Strange Brew” and Jimi Hendrix (“Voodoo Chile”). Impressive and crowd-pleasing as these emulations were, Guy was at his best immersing himself in the soulful message of “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember” and “Feels Like Rain.”

His tricks were fun – playing with just his left hand, over his head, with his teeth, and strumming blinding fast or sparsely picking perfectly chosen soft notes. However, the way he combined guitar heroics with soulful singing united his great gifts at their richest. A bluesman for the ages, he lives intensely and impulsively the moment, but relishes and earns his place in tradition with the flair of a master at the top of his game.

“How about the band, everybody?” called Tom Hambridge, pointing to versatile guitarist Rocky Rollins, the only player onstage with him. A resourceful songwriter, producer and performer best known lately for penning country hits, Hambridge didn’t need much accompaniment since he had bluesy and fun tunes, impressive snare-drum skills, a fine voice and all the charm in the world. He and “the band” had no trouble driving the punchy “Trying to Get Off” down the tracks, conjuring a chunky vamp on “The Fixer,” written for George Thorogood, or going deep into the blues on two tunes written for Susan Tedeschi. His best songs were “19,” mourning a man who wore that number playing football and was that age when he died in Iraq, and its polar opposites, the playful “Rachel” about putting his baby daughter to bed and “Trouble in the Henhouse” in which he made the audience crow “Cock-a-doodle-doo!” on cue, just as they finger-snapped in an earlier number.


Rolling back now, a bit further…

When Buddy Guy’s manager phoned me to offer an interview with the blues star before a show hereabouts in the late 1990’s, I accepted only reluctantly.

Although I’d been impressed – knocked out, actually – seeing Buddy play with longtime band mate harmonica ace Junior Wells in sweaty, rocking, deep-funk shows at J.B. Scotts in downtown Albany, I’d recently struggled through interviews with other bluesmen of similar vintage. These were rough rides via long distance phone through faded memories and bruised bravado. 

Not Buddy, though.

He was razor-sharp lucid, engagingly humble and entertainingly funny. We seemed to enjoy the conversation about equally. His manager confirmed this when he surprised me by phoning back a few minutes later. Buddy’s team was toying with the idea of a biography, recognizing both his unique place in blues history and his unprecedented ability to tell that story with clarity and humble humor. They liked how the interview went and offered me the job.

Wow, I wondered: Can I do this?

Every writer, at least every writer I knew, had a book project in mind. And this opportunity had fallen into my lap – offered out of the blue by guys who thought I could do it since I’d achieved an easy rapport with Buddy in the interview.

They, thought I could do it, and readers of my Gazette stories had asked for years, “Where’s your book?”

Could this be it?

After a few days of fence-sitting, I realized the sad truth: No, no I couldn’t. Even for weekly Gazette columns, I would over-research, re-write several times and generally agonize over getting things right. I loved music that much that I’d break my ass to write about it.

If I pulled my hair out struggling with 500-1000-word columns I published every week, I just knew I’d surely over-research this project. 

So, I phoned my friend Don Wilcock, my first editor at the defunct-by-then music weekly Kite (successor to the Washington Park Spirit, predecessor to Metroland) that he published while working full time publishing magazines for GE. Don specialized in the blues and I thought his full-time gig would afford him the financial security to tackle a book project at the same time.

He enthusiastically accepted this challenge-opportunity, I put him in touch with Buddy Guy’s team and the thing took off. By which I mean that Don did exactly what I would have – and which I’d have gone broke doing. 

Don buzzed around interviewing sources in music and the music business. He went to Chicago and took photographer Rick Siciliano with him. They also flew to London, interviewed Rolling Stone bassist Bill Wyman and wound up drinking with Bill and some royal Beefeater guards in the Tower of London.

And, he struggled with writing the thing, prodded by his publisher to produce more dirt, on a notably non-dirty artist. A protracted struggle of push then push-back finally yielded an acceptable draft. “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues,” Don’s insightful examination of Buddy Guy’s life and career, beautifully illustrated with Rick’s photos, hit the bookstores in its first printing in June 7, 1999 by Duane Press.

Don gratefully thanked me for the opportunity in a generous introduction, and he inscribed for me the first copy off the press. 

Already a leading authority in the blues, Don’s “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues” burnished his reputation and brought new respect. He’d been on the map before, but this opened new real estate in blues publications and personal appearances doing presentations and running seminars at blues festivals across the south.

Ever since, Don has introduced me as his conduit to expanded recognition as a blues journalist, just as I introduce him as my first editor.

Fast forward a few years, when I got an email from Bill Wallace – as unexpected as the offer to write Buddy Guy’s biography.

Bill was a friend long, long ago, a fellow music fan I met in Japan where we were both stationed by the U.S. Navy in the late 1960s. He and his wife, appropriately named Margot Bliss, were from tiny Placierville in California gold country. They were frequent guests at the stereo-filled home I shared with friends in the village of Tsuruma. There, we pooled our record collections and annoyed the neighbors with our “Battle of the Bands” – crank up the amps in different rooms to see if Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen” could drown out Cream’s “I’m So Glad.”

Bill knew a lot about the blues and R&B. He could mimic Bo Diddley’s growl, running the litany of Bo’s band-mates in his stage intros. Grimacing vividly, Bill would announce “the Duchess!” – Bo’s longtime guitarist, born Norma-Jean Wofford.  

Bill and I returned to the states on leaving the Navy in 1970-71, and immediately lost track of each other as he settled in California’s Bay Area and I returned to Schenectady.

Decades passed, then Bill emailed me in early 2000, asking if I were the same Michael Hochanadel who’d lived in Japan in late-1969/mid-1970. I was, I emailed back, and he told me how he’d found me.

Shopping for a birthday gift for Bill, his son was rummaging among music tomes in a Berkeley used-book shop and bought Don’s “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues,” wrapped it and gave it to his dad. Bill found my name in Don’s introduction.

Bill was then an investigative reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle and knew how to find people, even in those early days of internet searches. 

So, Bill searched, found me and we stayed in touch until he died about a year ago.

In one of his emails, he thanked me for some music we shared:

“…for many years I have felt I owed you a major league debt of gratitude, 

Mike.  I doubt you recall this, but you let me tape your Taj Majal 

double album, “The Old Folks At Home/Take A Giant Step,” and 

Albert King’s “Born Under A Bad Sign” (as well as some Earl 

Hooker, James Cotton, Fleetwood Mac and Champion Jack Dupree) 

while you were living at Chez Otis (our house in Tsuruma bore a sign:

“Otis B. Driftwood” after a Groucho Marx character), and those two records in 

particular have always been among my favorites.  When I first 

listened to King playing “Cross Cut Saw,” I could finally 

understand what some friends had said about Eric Clapton 

copying his solo note for note for Cream’s “Strange Brew.” 

I long ago wore out my reel-to-reel recording of both discs, but 

was able to score a foreign reissue of the King record on vinyl at 

Arhoolie Records in El Cerritto in the early 1980s. I own about six 

or seven of his albums now, and this week I picked up the “In 

Session” sides with Albert backed up by Stevie Ray Vaughn. It 

isn’t the best Albert King or Stevie Ray work I have ever heard, but 

it is a treat to hear the old master playing with the (at-the-time) up 

and coming SRV.

As for Taj, he lives up in Marin County, but the first time I ever 

heard him play in person was last summer. He was appearing at 

the Shoreline in Mountain View as one of the opening acts for B.B. 

King (or, as I call him, “The OTHER King”) and Kenny Wayne 

Shepherd. He had a cooking group behind him — about eight guys — 

and they were so tight you couldn’t have slipped a Riz La in 

between them. A totally great set, way down at the bottom of the 

card! My son just loved the whole show. I keep looking for a re-

issue of “Take A Giant Step,” which had one of the greatest 

versions of “Good Morning Little School Girl” I have ever heard.

Just wanted you to know: If we ever get together again, I will 

be sure to bring you a bottle of Jameson Irish whisky as a very, 

very partial repayment for comping me to one of my most 

memorable musical experiences more than 29 years ago.”

Sadly, Bill and I never met up again. I never knew he was there, on my several visits to San Francisco over the decades. I thanked Don for putting my name in his book, just as he thanks me, still, for connecting him with this life-changing, or at least, career-enhancing opportunity.

These days, I think of Bill Wallace whenever I hear blues for real, played the way we heard it on batting stereos in Japan. I remembered him last week, seeing Buddy Guy, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Christone Kingfish Ingram with my friend Dennis. 

And I realized how permanent are the bonds music makes when it thrills us together.