On his last two records, 2001's Sweet Tea and now Blues Singer, Buddy Guy has been retrofitted in an attempt to find a new (read: younger) audience. This isn't really a bad move. On Sweet Tea, Guy explains through his guitar that modern rock music could not exist without his supreme blues improvisations. Guy's playing on Blues Singer links him back to the Delta by way of Son House and John Lee Hooker. The disc is an acoustic set that presents Guy not as the electrified West Side Chicago blues legend but as an unplugged, haggard, trouble-in-mind rambling man--melancholic, aching, but hopeful. Yes, it is probably a contrivance to set up a Louisiana-born, Chicago-bred, urban electric guitar legend as a Delta bluesman. However, what is really contrivance? The White Stripes channel Led Zeppelin layered over some John Lee Hooker and Detroit blues riffs, and people call it new--post-post-punk or whatever. Isn't that just as contrived? A blues man playing the blues doesn't taste so sour as that.
There's little to say about the guitar performance--Guy on the acoustic guitar is, to say only the least, simple, singular and great. When you listen to him live or on disc, it is like taking a musicology course: Guy's fingers can channel whomever they want and show you how their style either emerges from or generates the others. So, on tracks such as Willie Dixon's "I Love the Life I Live" or John Lee Hooker's "Black Cat Blues," you hear Guy's playing edge backward to touch a Dixon bass line or a Hooker boogie lead. Of course, this playing is a way of reminding you of the origin of the music while pointing out that these three guys were all once on the Chess label and helped invent the urban blues of Chicago and Detroit.
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It's Guy's voice, however, that really captures our attention on this disc. Who else sings with the range and quality that he does? Here, he sings like a bright new sling-blade--shiny, sharp and echoing in high falsetto on Skip James' "Hard Time on the Killing Floor," then blood-letting and mad-mean on "Crawlin' Kingsnake" and "Sally Mae." The producers don't mess around; there aren't any of Daniel Lanois' atmospherics to cushion the naked voice as on Dylan's Time Out of Mind. When you unplug the guitar, you'd better be able to sing because there ain't nothing to hide behind. Guy's strengths--his instrumental mastery and great voice--make Blues Singer worth listening to.