Friday, April 30 was the culmination in Baton Rouge of 'International Guitar Month', and what a culmination it was, with a major blues bash by Sonny Landreth, John Campbell, and Buddy Guy in the LSU Assembly Center closing it out in screaming, howling, hot-blooded fashion.
John Campbell will reach out and GRAB your ying yang and make you stand up, jump and shake, then deposit you gasping in your seat. He is *good*. I'd guesstimate that at least 80% of the folks in attendance had never heard of JC, much less heard his music, and he had the crowd going nuts. I set next to a couple of guys who were a few years younger (college age), and told them between sets what a treat Campbell would be. They looked slightly skeptical when I said that they would be blown away, and that JC would do a version of "When the Levee Breaks" that would take the song back to its blues roots and leave Led Zep in the dust.
Halfway through his set, I just grinned when they gasped, "Is he always this good? Are his albums this good?” Switching between his electrified acoustic guitar and a National steel guitar (also apparently electrified), Campbell displayed complete command of the acoustic blues guitar styles, variously picking, slapping, plucking, and using a slide. He laid down guitar that boogied and burned, like a cross between John Lee Hooker and Elmore James, while his deep, commanding voice growled out his lyrics from the darker side of life. "Devil's in my closet... can't trust my woman no more", he growls; "Ain't afraid of midnight... I've danced in that graveyard before... the reaper better be packin' heat when he comes for me", he roars in "Ain't Afraid of Midnight".
Later in the set he paused for a mini blues guitar sermon, giving demonstrations of 'piano', 'banjo' and 'Mississippi delta' style, then combining them all in a howling, burning display of guitar virtuosity. He's evil and has stage presence to go with it; his long hair tied behind his head, gaunt frame, leather jacket, black jeans and boots; his scarred face and missing right eye; his obvious appreciation and mastery of past blues masters combine with a dynamic sound that is accessible to rock 'n roll fans; all are factors that add up to The Real Thing. Robert Cray takes blues into the modern age in one way, but Campbell does it too, in his own style from a less urban blues heritage than Cray. The crowd was going bonkers and eating it up. Campbell is NOT to be missed if he comes to your area! Oh his band mates were damn good too, especially the drummer, a guy from Portland, Oregon whose name I didn't catch.
Finally, the star of the evening came on; Buddy Guy walked out on stage clad in a bright red suit and gleaming white sneakers. I have to admit I was thinking to myself that not too damn many people would have wanted to follow John Campbell after his fantastic set. But this was Buddy Guy, the subject of the now clichéd quote from Eric Clapton, "he's by far the best guitar player alive today". Guy hit the stage and immediately tore into a blistering version of Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Mary Had a Little Lamb". He screamed on his guitar, and into the microphone he howled, whispered, and nearly squealed, his voice swooping from a barely audible to a full-throated roar to a silky falsetto.
Damn! I hadn't realized just what a terrific blues *singer* Guy is! This was more urban, "Chicago" blues, compared to Campbell, and Guy was cutting loose much more than on his studio albums, as I'd heard he would do. Only... there was one problem that kept it from clicking completely: the crowd. Buddy has so much interaction with the crowd, urging us to sing verses and otherwise really get *into* the performance, that his show needs a good crowd to be at its best. This was mostly a young crowd, raised on rock 'n roll and unfamiliar with blues songs. Most of us gave it a valiant attempt, but we fell kind of flat and left Guy searching for "some shit we know". He seemed to have a huge bag of trick in his repertoire, and he searched through it for something that would click and boost his show up into that zone where you *know* that magic is happening, but it just never made it. The show was damn good, and Guy did his impressions of Hendrix, Clapton, Page, Muddy Waters, and B.B. King, but the karma never set in.
Halfway through the show the crowd rushed to the stage to stand and be in position to catch guitar picks; the young guitarist contingent was definitely in attendance. Buddy didn't disappoint – he waded into the crowd, fingers flying over his guitar as he left the stage and the sound of his guitar screaming behind him. I was in the section just above the floor - would he come up the steps so I could get a close up view? The anticipation was killing me. He worked his way to the back of the floor, and then disappeared in the entrance ramp. Then suddenly the gaggle of neon-green t-shirts surrounding him moved toward the stairs... yes!!! He's coming up! Around me, necks craned and eyes lit with enthusiasm as he climbed the stairs two sections from our seats, then crossed over and descended - but still one section over. Ah hell, probably wouldn't have been able to see much with all the neon-greenies around, anyway. He returned to the stage and commenced flinging guitar picks like candy, even teasingly offering his bow after a bowed solo, sliding it away as the greedy hands of the guitar weenies grabbed for it.
Don't get me wrong - the show was great, Guy was full of guitar wizardry (played it with his teeth a couple of times, zinged it across his chest, bowed it, etc. - I was 6 when Hendrix died and this was probably as close as you can get to that these days), it just didn't quite reach that ultimate level. That's ok though - a little extra incentive to get out and see him next time he's anywhere nearby.
So whom did I enjoy most, between John Campbell and Buddy Guy? Despite Guy's reputation for live shows, I have to go with Campbell by a slim margin, based on the fact that he had me and the rest of the crowd on our feet more often. But I'd go see either solo in a second. $15 for both??? 3 hours of blistering blues??? (For a total of 4 hours)YOWZUH!!!
Still buzzing - Paul HeroyMay 3, 1993
Contributed by Paul Heroy
Used with Permission. Copyright © 1993 Paul Heroy