Despite the title of his latest recording, Buddy Guy really doesn’t have anything to prove. Admired and cited as an influence by some of rock’s greatest guitarists (including the likes of Clapton), he’s an acknowledged master of his instrument. He’s got a genuinely impressive history, including early work with Muddy Waters and an extended partnership with harmonica ace Junior Wells, as well as a lengthy solo career that’s been on a steady rise since back in the 90’s.
So the question regarding a Buddy Guy CD is the quality of the material, and just how engaged he is with said material. On that basis, Living Proof stands as a career highlight.
Guy should be engaged here. Most of the tunes are directly biographical, written by producer Tom Hambridge based on casual conversations with Guy. But while the lyrics might occasionally be a bit solipsistic, there’s no doubt Guy is singing and playing from the heart this time out. “74 Years Young,” the obviously-autobiographical opener, and the staunchly defiant “Thank Me Someday,” the one-two punch that kicks things off, set the stage – with stellar, bone-crunching backup anchored by Hambridge’s drums. He literally tells his life story while tearing off ferocious leads with utterly dazzling dexterity.
The band varies from track to track, with Reese Wynans on keys and guitarist David Grissom fairly constant throughout. Guest turns include B. B. King and Carlos Santana, the former trading licks and lines on the relaxed and reflective “Stay Around A Little Longer,” the latter weaving sinuous guitar lines through “Where The Blues Begin,” a stylistic contrast that brings out the best in both guitarists.
The slightly latin-leaning “Where The Blues Begin” aside, Hanbridge’s compositions stick fairly close to blues convention, providing sturdy twelve-bar bedrock that give Guy lots of room for his incendiary guitar work. Guy responds with his trademark intensity, undiminished by time or age; he’s absolutely on fire here, with no signs of mellowing or slowing down. His solos are furious, bordering on frenetic, and it’s obvious he’s still completely in command of his legendary prowess on the six-string.
Nor have the years diminished Guy’s vocal chops – he’s in fine form throughout, roaring and growling and flat-out testifying on tracks that look back on a life in the blues. He’s both wry and sly on the slinky funk of “On The Road,” an itinerary-in-song of a touring musician, and downright dangerous on “Key Don’t Fit,” an instant classic on a timeless theme that shows Guy’s got plenty of fire left in places other than his fingers. The title tune is a grinding shuffle with added oomph from background singers Wendy Moten and the great Bekka Bramlett, while the sweetly soulful “Everybody’s Got To Go” offers a bit of respite (and some hard-won wisdom) from the fret fireworks. “Let The Door Knob Hit Ya,” credited to Guy and Hambridge, borrows a bit from Guy’s own “Damn Right I Got The Blues,” the signature tune that launched his career renaissance, and things close with the hard-driving “Skanky,” an instrumental that sounds just that.
There’s not a weak track in the bunch, though, and while the production is slick and the sound dense, the focus remains squarely on Guy. He’s more than up to the task, clearly relishing his role as survivor and statesman, with more enthusiasm and excitement than he’s shown in years.
Guy is an icon, one of the most recognizable blues artists on the planet, but his skills haven’t always been reflected to best advantage on disc. With Living Proof, he does indeed offer up proof that, at his best, he’s utterly untouchable. One can argue that, as a collection, it’s a bit too much ‘about’ Buddy Guy. Musically, though, and for the sheer unmitigated ferocity of his still-incendiary fretwork, this one’s damn near perfect.