This is the sixth in a series of Rock & Roll features I'm writing for this site. I'm a rock and roller, so this column is a way for me to feature a different album that I like, from different genres every month.
Blues may just be one of those genres you either love or hate depending on your personality, but it is and always will be the basis for all rock and roll. I consider some blues to be just another form of rock music and some rock to just be another form of blues the two genres overlap so much, but I thought it was time to discuss an “actual blues album”, if you want to call it that.
I first came to the blues primarily when I was getting heavily into Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton during my college days and it made sense that I would progress into artists that might be considered “actual blues artists”. One of the first I sought out was Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy. I'd seen Guy perform at a show earlier and had liked his music, but had not become fully entrenched in blues yet, and so I didn't pick up his latest release at the time, Sweet Tea. Remembering that release later when I was finally getting into blues more and more, I decided to start there when I started exploring Guy's large musical catalog.
Buddy Guy is one of the most interesting blues artists. Having been around and releasing albums since the 60s, his career is massive and includes a range of styles ranging from straight up blues to the psychedelic. Although some call his career more inconsistent than anything else, he is still an inspiration to thousands, a heck of a performer and guitarist (even now in his 60s), with lots of worthwhile albums to his credit. I find Sweet Tea to be one of my favorites not only by him, but by all blues artists and even of all time.
Released in 2001 after a successful comeback in the 90s, this album was labeled as something of a return to the blues, but I see it as far more than that; a great blues album yes, but also just a great feel and that makes it great from more than just a blues perspective.
The album starts off with a raw solo acoustic piece called “Done Got Old”. A bit of a somber look at aging and experience, it fits Guy well, sounding authentic not only because of his age, but because his vocals are just full of the soul of a man who has really lived, capturing a little bit of the intensity the early blues artists had. The songs that follow are all electric, but still carry through the same authenticity that comes through in this opener and gives the entire album that extra little something.
It might sound slightly out of place sound wise being the only acoustic song, but it fits with the consistent feel of the album well. That feel is in the blues vein, but it is different than any other blues feel I've ever heard. “She's Got the Devil In Her”, “It's a Jungle Out There” and “Who's Been Foolin' You” are all close to traditional blues but have a darker, shadowy, rough feel that is difficult to describe. My two favorite songs off this album (although as always with great music, it is hard to pick) are good examples of what I mean by this “darkness”. “Baby Please Don't Leave Me” and “Stay All Night” are both slower slightly droning and hypnotic blues pieces with massively soulful lyrics with great guitar riffs. Both though, feel significantly darker than most of what has been done by say B.B. King, or heck, even Guy himself. They are dark, seductive and rich with soul, smoke and a late night aching. Both hint at something more mystic, with their echoing quality, but only hint and don't delve directly into that type of feel. Instead Guy stays rooted in the blues and using it to give the music a depth of style and soul that is just spine tinglingly dark.
That might be a good description for the album in a single phrase: spine tinglingly dark, or maybe dark and intense. Even more upbeat songs like “Look What All You Got” and “Who's Been Foolin You” have a just enough of this darkness and roughness to make them sound… smoky, like you're viewing them through the thick haze of the late night blues club. Yet not a classy “suit and tie” club, but something a little more seedy and raw, and it is this type of feel that is carried through the entire album.
The guitar solo driven “Tramp” has tons of soul while “She's Got the Devil In Her” and “Who's Been Foolin You” may be the few times the smoke clears slightly. Both still have a rough feel but in spite of slightly dark lyrics, they seem like two of the lighter songs on the album because they are closer to standard blues format and style. The twelve minute slow burning guitar workout, “I Gotta Try You Girl” is a definite highlight from this album and shows that Buddy Guy has not lost anything in his guitar playing (actually the entire album demonstrates that quite well). My other favorite song from this album is the only one actually penned by Guy: “Its a Jungle Out There”. This song sounds like the early morning… dawn breaking… after the long night in the club. With great guitar work, a subtlety soulful vocal line and a great feel it closes the album very well and kind of echoes some of the experience embodied in the opener.
The songs as a whole are not overtly catchy, but along with their great feel, they all have a little something that hints at something more primal and based in instinct. Catchy or not, I find myself listening to them all the time and, that's a mark of a great album.
There are a few things though about this album that may be considered detracting by some. As I said, it has a very distinctly dark, smoky and seductive feel all the way through. That may be something you either love or hate as it can sound a little too thick at times, like the music is just too clouded, echoed, or separated, and doesn't let up really throughout the album. Personally, I think it works well for these songs, really like how it feels and like the mood it creates.
The album is also not nearly as gritty as it could be, but I think that about most albums that are more recent releases. Some people may also find this album a bit too produced for a blues album, but I've heard worse. I don't find it a problem on this album at all, as the songs are rough in style and that makes the production slightly less noticeable when it is a little over the top. There are also a few moments where double tracked guitar solos split where I wonder why, but I can get past that. Some people may also find the use of unexpected key changes and slightly fractured syncopated guitar work disjointing but I like these elements too as it makes these songs far more spontaneous and progressive sounding than more fluid blues players.
I don't really think any of these things detracts from the music.
If you're new to true electric blues artists, Sweet Tea might be a good first venture into the genre although I can think of a few that are more typical of the blues genre. If you're already into blues, this album is definitely worth checking out as it is up there with some of Buddy Guy's other gems in my opinion and if you're into some of the dark seductive groove rock and roll that is out now this might be right up your alley as well.
Overall a good sign that Buddy Guy can still play a mean guitar, sing some soulful blues and create a great feel and mood. A great album, not just as a great blues album and a stand out in a long career playing the blues.