By Dwight Brown
Combine their ages and these legends, Mavis Staples (80 years old) and Buddy Guy (83), have 163 years’ worth of living to sing about. And when they do, it’s a music and history lesson extraordinaire.
Staples built a reputation for her rugged R&B chops, social activism and fame as the lead singer of the classic soul/gospel group The Staples Singers. As a solo artist she has carved a new niche, backed by a rock guitarist, bass player, drummer and two back-up singers. Somehow her stripped down band brings more than enough sound to performing arts venues.
The musicians help, but it is Staple’s booming contralto, which delivers a raspy-throated sound as grounded as the earth, that captures attention. As she took the stage Sunday night, November 10th at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, the mixed crowd of adults and seniors was quite receptive through her opening numbers. Their reserve went out the window and flipped to high-energy when Staples launched into a rousing cover of the Talking Heads hip rock song “Slippery People.” Mavis sang: “Backslidin’, how do you do? These slippery people, Gonna see you through.”
Staples warmed up the audience with homey chatter: “How you feel? We bring you greetings from the Windy City, Chicago. Home of Muddy Waters, Koko Taylor and Howlin’ Wolf. We come this evening to bring you joy, and positive good vibrations. Can I get an amen?” It wasn’t church, but the crowd responded with a hearty, “Amen!” The singer, with a loving spirit, blessed the audience. It was an intangible feeling of bliss that grew more concrete as her set progressed.
When Mavis vibrantly claps her hand, displaying a sense of syncopation that is in keeping with a musician of her caliber, it makes you remember how vital she has been to the music scene with a career that spans decades. Her gritty voice growled through the Buffalo Springfield classic “For What It’s Worth:” “There’s battle lines being drawn. Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong. Young people speaking their minds … It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound. Everybody look what’s going down.”
Before she ended the set with classics like “Respect Yourself” and “No Time for Crying,” she lamented the state of politics and the presidency. One lone boo was heard from a jackal in the crowd. Everyone else applauded loudly. Then they went bananas when Mavis said, “I’m going up to that White House. I may run for president myself.” Massive cheering ensued. These were her fans, extended family and constituents. With no encore, no real formal goodbye, she left the stage after what turned out to be her last number. She left them hungry for more. She always does.
Anyone who thought Staples’ heartfelt performance would be the highlight of the evening was dead wrong. Steeped in a legendary aura of Chicago Blues, electric blues and blues rock, Buddy Guy took center stage like a king coming home to share his bounty with his people. But instead of expressing his ambitions, he let his guitar do the talking. Halfway through his first tune, he had displayed enough virtuosity to establish that he is the messiah of guitarists, one that younger musicians mimic as they become his disciples.
If you’ve heard Gary Clark Jr. blast his guitar, Eric Clapton make his axe sing, Keith Richards’ rhythm guitar playing, Jimi Hendrix’s guitar wails, etc. you’ve simply heard echoes of Buddy Guy. And those musicians and others will recognize him as their role model.
Guy has been in the music business since 1953. His brand of playing helped give birth to modern blues and rock. He can be slick, with his guitar licks. Tough. Melodic. Rocked out. Low down and dirty, too. “I can play something so funky you can smell it,” brags Guy. And then he does.
The elder statesman gave a nod to fellow blues player, the late Muddy Waters, with a stirring rendition of “Hoochie Coochie Man:” “Don’t you know I’m here. Everybody knows I’m here. Well, you know I’m the hoochie coochie man!” Damn right. He strummed his guitar as fast a Tommy Gun shooting bullets. Conversely, sometimes his vocals were as slow as molasses dripping off a spoon. You can see where blues/rocker Bonnie Raitt got her vocal chops. It was from hanging out with Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. And since Guy is still performing, you can hear that connection between the two.
Guy noted that he is a voice from the past, still faithful to the blues, a music form that is not as popular as it once was. Sadly, he proclaimed, “This is the kind of blues that they don’t play on the radio anymore.” As he crooned, and showed a deep passion for his music, his performance crested with the song “I Just Want to Make Love to You:” “I don’t want you, be no slave. I don’t want you to work all day. I don’t want cause I’m sad and blue. I just want to make love to you.”
When Buddy Guy was on stage you couldn’t control your toe-tapping, hand clapping or body shaking. His music overpowered you with a strength that comes from a man who has lived eight decades, can still spar with the best and stand his ground. After Guy mentioned the name Howlin Wolf, a drunk patron in the front row dared to shout out that Howlin Wolf was from Jersey. Guy stopped playing, and gave the man a verbal beatdown: “He’s not from Jersey and you don’t know what the f— you’re talking about … you didn’t hear this kind of music until white rockers did it!” The dude was embarrassed, shamed and the audience watched an icon correct a rookie who was out of line. Then they applauded.
Two legends. One incredible double bill. If you have the chance to see them together or separately, you must. Nothing is promised. No one lives forever. See them now, before their next performances are on a stage in heaven.