Nice to see Buddy Guy getting a ‘Best Blues Album’ Grammy for Born To Play Guitar. But listening recently to his 2001 album Sweet Tea does rather put his latest outing in perspective. Because as enjoyable as BPTG is, Sweet Tea is a whole other ball game.
If you’re already familiar with it then you’ll know what I’m talking about. If not, then it’s worth telling you, because it’s not exactly widely available, and unless you get a used CD you’re likely to have to shell out 20 quid for it. I got it partly out of curiosity, because Ian Siegal’s collaborator Jimbo Mathus features on rhythm guitar. What I got for my money though, is a monster of an album.
Recorded while he was still signed to Silvertone, Guy may have been 65 at the time, but this set doesn’t present him in the cheerful old grandad mode that seems familiar now. Even the cover photos set a different tone, with a frizzy haired Guy in half shadow, and looking as moody and enigmatic as Miles Davis wondering if he’s left the oven on.
The album was recorded at the Sweet Tea recording studio in Oxford, Mississippi, and produced and mixed by the studio’s owner, Dennis Herring. Unsurprisingly then, most of the nine songs here are drawn from the North Mississippi hill country canon. Four of them are by Junior Kimbrough, who famously said: “My songs, they have just the one chord, there’s none of that fancy stuff you hear now, with lots of chords in one song. If I find another chord I leave it for another song.” Which maybe provides a clue to what has been described as “a hypnotic, grooving type of blues”.
Buddy Guy isn’t from Mississippi, of course. He was born in Louisiana, before moving to Chicago. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the style explored on Sweet Tea represented some kind of weird experiment for him. John Lee Hooker’s ‘Boogie Chillen’ was one of his inspirations as a youngster, and while Hooker grew up near Clarksdale he learnt guitar from his stepfather Will Moore, who came from Louisiana. Moore, according to blues historian Robert Palmer, was brought up on a brand of “hypnotic, one-chord drone blues”, with songs “that fitted traditional and improvised lyrics into a loose, chant-like structure”. And if you listen to Louisiana’s Tony Joe White, from a later generation, what you hear is again a mesmeric, seemingly endless groove.
So the album opens with ‘Done Got Old’, with Guy playing solo on acoustic guitar. But if something like ‘Come Back Muddy’ from his latest album has an air of sentimentality about it, this is dark, sombre, and reflective. It’s a downbeat opening, drawing you into the mood. The band then kick in on the following ‘Baby Please Don’t Leave Me’, which sets the template for much of what follows. A doomy rhythm sound is the foundation for a simple lyric - forget about verses and choruses, you get a repetitive refrain, delivered in a plaintive wail, around which Guy weaves a succession of howling guitar fills, with swathes of reverb and hints of distortion to twist the knife even further.
This, I may tell you, is merely the little brother of the seventh track, ‘I Got To Try You Girl’, a 12-minute mantra of concentrated, determined lust. Twelve gripping minutes, the overall effect of which is somehow primitive and timeless, but at the same time stratospheric and revolutionary. It’s as if Guy has managed to vault back in time, dig up the very roots of his blues, then travel forward to the Sixties and fuse it with his own influence as a kind of proto-Hendrix, before re-emerging in the 21st century. It is, as they say, something else.
In between there are examples of the more shuffling, syncopated side of hill country blues, such T-Model Ford’s ‘Look What All You Got’, and ‘She’s Got The Devil In Her’ with its relentless, buzzing bass riff. The latter comes from the pen of Cedell Davis – who has had releases in recent years produced by none other than Jimbo Mathus.
Tour de force, blockbuster, call it what you will, Sweet Tea really and truly demonstrates Buddy Guy’s genius. Somehow I doubt that he’ll be playing much of this stuff when he tours the UK this summer – but it would be incredible if he did.