Expectations for what you might see in a concert are not always what turn out to be the reality of the situation. On my way to Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, I knew I was going to see two legendary guitar players in their respective fields. Let’s just say any preconceived notions I may have had regarding a strong showing by Buddy Guy and Jeff Beck were dismissed several times throughout this fine Sunday evening.
First, I assumed Buddy Guy would be opening for Jeff Beck. However, Beck took the stage first, opening with a track from his latest release Loud Hail. The song starts, vocals are heard, but no one on stage is singing. Then a woman dressed in what could be described as some kind of military uniform singing through a megaphone appears as she strolls down the aisle. She eventually gets on stage and joins the band. Now, this really wasn’t that strange for a Jeff Beck show. He has been dabbling in different genres most of his career.
Beck alternated between new album cuts and some of his classics like Freeway Jam. Somewhere around the fifth or sixth song a different vocalist appears and to the crowd’s approval, it was veteran Jimmy Hall who has worked with Jeff many times. Their performance of “Morning Dew” was highly inspiring and raised some goose bumps on Beck’s avid fans in attendance. “Morning Dew” was written during the turbulent 1960’s with a post apocalyptic theme. There seemed to be a bit of a theme during the show. I have always considered Jeff Beck to be a man of peace, and he conveyed this subtle message in his selections.
As for Beck’s guitar playing? Well, a musician in his league never disappoints in that department. Some people have claimed JB to be the best guitar player out there. Even though that I find that an impossible title to hold, he is certainly high on the list. Now here is a guy known for flashy guitar playing yet he doesn’t waste a note. We have had so many technically gifted guitar players come and go through the years, so what makes a guy like him so appealing? One word, melody. If someone claimed Jeff was the most melodic guitar player, I just might have to agree. Some say brilliant instrumentalists are often frustrated singers and when Beck plays, it is akin to a human voice. He doesn’t even use a pick anymore. This man’s music is what happens when you give someone an amazing ear uniquely interpreting each melody on a Stratocaster. Beck’s encore was his take on The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life” to which he played the vocal lines on the guitar just like a singer. His voice is the guitar.
After Beck’s stirring set, I was sitting there thinking, “How is Buddy Guy gonna top that?” Buddy is Buddy, that’s what he is. He has been quoted as saying that’s all he can do is be himself. That’s just fine in my book. A true artist’s personality comes out in their art, no matter what the area. Guy is often manic but just so down to earth that you end up falling in love with the man before the show is over. He celebrated his 80th birthday just the day before. That’s correct, 80 years old! But Guy didn’t show his age and displayed the energy of a much younger man.
Guy’s attitude on stage is incredible. I have never met Buddy myself but have heard that off the stage he is a pretty shy guy. He’s just one of those artists whose true self only comes out when performing. Look out and be prepared as Guy’s shows are basically unscripted for the most part. He admitted he had no set list though his band was obviously prepared for what he was doing. His performance is almost like Buddy thinking out loud. He jumps from one thing to another.
I consider Buddy to be one of the last real showmen of the Blues. His roots go back to Muddy Waters. Those old Blues cats always know how to entertain. Buddy used to do a trick back in the old club days where he would use a super long guitar cord and go out into the audience while playing. Now a wireless system makes things so much easier. Guy walked off the stage and kept going though a good portion of the pavilion at Ravinia, twice passing my way.
Guy was joined by Beck on one song and another featured two of his kids, one on vocals the other on guitar. The last portion of his show was Buddy teasing the audience playing just bits of a bunch of old Blues songs that weighed heavily as his musical influences. A true entertainer leaves the audience satisfied but wanting more. This was definitely the case.
Did Buddy Guy top Jeff Beck? Well, maybe not by his guitar playing alone. The performance actually made you forget the opening act while he was on stage. Like the title of his opening number, Buddy was “Born to Play the Guitar”. Jeff Beck was too, but Buddy was also born to entertain. At 80-years-old, won’t be performing forever, my advice being to see him while you still can. He is really one of the only living links to the old Blues cats left. After him, it’s mostly the English Blues players like Clapton. And who is Eric Clapton’s favorite guitar player? Buddy Guy. On July 31, 2016, Buddy Guy was mine was too.