Can't Quit the Blues
(Silvertone / Legacy)
The Music Box's #4 boxed set of 2006
First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2006, Volume 13, #11
Written by John Metzger
Box sets typically take one of two paths: Either they provide an in-depth cross-section of an artist’s complete catalogue, or they compile previously unreleased material as a means of illuminating a certain aspect of a career. Can’t Quit the Blues, the first expansive overview of Buddy Guy’s work, follows the former strategy, with one distinctive twist. Nearly two-thirds of the three-CD/one-DVD package emphasizes the recordings he has made in the past 15 years — well after he already had made his mark on the industry. No matter, Guy was a performer who thrived on stage and, until his recent resurgence, he struggled mightily to translate his tumultuous high-wire act into a studio setting.
Appropriately, Can’t Quit the Blues begins with The Way You Been Treating Me, which not only dates to 1957 but also was the first demo that he ever cut. Although it understandably is rooted in tradition, it’s easy to hear Guy’s distinctive growl and stinging lead beginning to take shape. Shortly after moving to Chicago, he found himself performing alongside the likes of Willie Dixon, Otis Spann, Otis Rush, and Junior Wells. Although he spent the bulk of the next decade with Chess Records, he continually was frustrated by the label’s desire to temper his sound, and not surprisingly, his efforts in the studio never fully showcased his abilities. Yet, as the songs that were selected for inclusion on Can’t Quit the Blues indicate, the limitations that were placed upon him weren’t enough to restrain his passionate delivery. In the span of a mere two and a half minutes, for example, Guy lays waste to Ten Years Ago, while a full-length romp through Stone Crazy from 1961 — the track was edited significantly for its release as a single — demonstrates how far Guy had come in the span of just a few years.
As the ’60s wore on, Guy began to distance himself from Chess, and the liberation that he felt is palpable on the biting Hoodoo Man Blues as well as the slow-burning devastation of In the Wee Hours — both of which were the result of a clandestine session with Junior Wells. There’s little doubt that his work remained inconsistent even after he jumped to Vanguard during the latter part of the ’60s, yet he also produced some truly outstanding material, including the relaxed groove of Can’t Quit the Blues’ title track and the mournful One Room Country Shack.
Guy’s work during the ’70s and ’80s is woefully under-represented on Can’t Quit the Blues, though this has as much to do with the notion that the blues in general became horribly out of fashion as it did with the fact that Guy was left without a domestic recording contract. Nevertheless, the selections that were culled from this era — which include an intense romp through T-Bone Shuffle with Junior Wells, Eric Clapton, and Dr. John; the snarling She Suits Me to a T; and a dynamic, blistering, and particularly anguished rendition of I Smell a Rat, which undeniably serves as one of the box set’s utmost highlights — are truly remarkable.
Guy nearly was a forgotten entity when, in 1991, he reemerged with Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues, and three songs from the Grammy-winning set — a rip-roaring duet with Jeff Beck on Mustang Sally; a tormented interpretation of Five Long Years; and the thunderous title track — have been incorporated into Can’t Quit the Blues’ contents. Via his subsequent pursuits, Guy has done everything in his power to ensure that he remains firmly entrenched in the spotlight. At times, his live concerts have been overloaded with the same batch of blues standards, and too often, his feisty, fiery approach has been tempered by his audience-pleasing showmanship. On the other hand, he still possesses the ability to turn a song inside-out — his covers of Muddy Waters’ She’s Nineteen Years Old and Don Robey’s I Smell Trouble are emotionally explosive — and left to his own devices, his studio recordings have proven to be more durable and eclectic than his early work. On Sweet Tea, for example, he placed his own distinctive spin upon the blues strain that originated in the hill country of northern Mississippi, and through the material from Heavy Love — Midnight Train and the rarity Totally Out of Control, which featured Jonny Lang and Reese Wynans, respectively — he explored a heady, funk-oriented motif. Elsewhere, the New Orleans-steeped Feels Like Rain rambled from an incendiary cover of Ray Charles’ Mary Ann to the lovely, laid-back soulfulness of John Hiatt’s Feels Like Rain (with Bonnie Raitt, no less), and in crafting Blues Singer, he boldly jettisoned his electric guitar in order to explore an acoustic-oriented framework, the highlight of which is a turbulent run through John Lee Hooker’s Crawlin’ Kingsnake with B.B. King and Eric Clapton.
My Time after Awhile — the newly created, 90-minute documentary that accompanies Can’t Quit the Blues — hammers home the point that the box set is designed specifically to widen Guy’s audience. Nevertheless, it’s a wonderfully produced piece that utilizes archival footage and rare photographs to trace the arc of Guy’s life and career in a captivating and enlightening fashion. Further expanding the scope of the collection are 11 previously unreleased concert performances, which also are presented on the DVD. Covering a 30-year span, the material ranges from two songs (Ten Years Ago and Hoodoo Man Blues) that were culled from a 1974 concert in Montreux, Switzerland to a pair of performances (Ray Charles’ What’d I Say and Son House’s Louise McGee) that were taken from a 2004 show in Seattle. In full, Can’t Quit the Blues provides a stunning overview of Guy’s immense yet still-expanding legacy. ½
Can't Quit the Blues is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2006 The Music Box