My favorite Buddy Guy story goes back a few years.
It unfolded during Labor Day weekend 1990 in downtown Louisville. This was long before the days of Forecastle, when the top outdoor festival was the Louisville American Musicfest, a multigenre outgrowth of an annual bluegrass event the city had hosted for more than a decade. The gathering went heavy on blues and roots-driven music presented on multiple stages near Main Street. Performers included Joe Ely, Lonnie Brooks, and Béla Fleck and the Flecktones.
Over at the Belvedere, the Austin Lounge Lizards had just completed a Saturday afternoon set of renegade bluegrass when a shout came from the main concert stage outside the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts. The voice, even from a distance, had the vigor and almost spiritual command of a rural preacher. This was the message it conveyed.
"If you don't like the blues, then ya'll just get on out of here."
The star of the evening had arrived.
Buddy Guy was onstage.
Guy's career renaissance — specifically, the popularity stemming from a career-redefining record titled Damn Right, I've Got the Blues — was a year away. Still, a new blues generation had flocked to the rockish potency of his playing, partly because of the support of Stevie Ray Vaughan. The Texas guitarist spent much of the previous decade telling any fan and critic who would listen what a mentoring influence Guy was on his playing.
But the blues world also was in mourning at the time. Vaughan had died in a horrific helicopter crash less than a month earlier. Nearly every performer that day in Louisville, including Guy, offered words of appreciation and dedication in his honor. Guy told the crowd he was dedicating "every show I'll ever do" to his late disciple.
That's when the sadness stopped. Maybe it was partly the testimony he had given in Vaughan's honor. A better guess, though, was that Guy simply shifted into the gospellike fervor and jackhammer musical intensity he brings to every performance. The show, almost with the flick of a switch, became a celebration.
That's when things really became fun. About halfway through Sweet Home Chicago, the chestnut that doubled as an ode to the blues Mecca that has served as home for nearly all of Guy's professional career, the guitarist left the stage, walked through the crowd and up the steps of the Kentucky Center to peer through the huge windows that enclosed the Bristol, a restaurant then on the venue's first floor. The crowd fell in behind him. He kept playing every step of the way.
One could only imagine the reaction of Bristol diners seated by the window as they glanced outside to see a man with a guitar, an electric smile the size of Texas and an army of about 500 people heading straight toward them.
How beautifully indicative the scenario was, though, of Guy's performance demeanor. It was a setting initially beset by the loss of a musical hero but remedied with an almighty dose of the blues.
"I was never the type of artist who was so good that I could just stand there and sing like B.B. King or Eric Clapton," Guy said in the DVD documentary My Time After Awhile, which is included in the 2006 boxed-set retrospective Can't Quit the Blues. "Plus, I'm from a Baptist family. In the Baptist church, when they feel good, they let you know it. I think that's what people see in me when I play."
Today, Guy, 76, is probably the most recognized ambassador of the blues outside of King. Born into a Louisiana sharecropping family, he gained an early appreciation for the music's Southern roots.
He has claimed John Lee Hooker's Boogie Chillun is the first song he learned to play. But it was upon moving to Chicago in 1957, where a young Guy eventually fell in with a blues contingency that featured innovators such as Muddy Waters, Otis Rush and soon-to-be performance partner Junior Wells, that he became fascinated by the music's electric possibilities.
Guy was also a reactionary. Tradition was great, but he remained in tune with the wave of British artists who amped up Chicago blues styles in a way that became popular with young America. That seemed to provide license to unleash a level of volume, intensity and pure vigor in Guy's playing that had been kept almost purposely under wraps. While signed to Chicago's landmark Chess label during the '60s, Guy recorded largely as a support musician for other artists. The rockish undertow of his music didn't fit in with what label chieftain Leonard Chess envisioned for his organization. Guy wound up issuing only one album as a leader for the label, 1967's heavily R&B-inspired Left My Blues in San Francisco, before moving on.
In the decades that followed, Guy became a hero to a new blues audience. He jammed with the likes of Eric Clapton, shared stages with the Rolling Stones and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In December, he was a recipient of one of the Kennedy Center Honors. He even managed to convince President Barack Obama to sing a verse of Sweet Home Chicago during a White House performance the preceding February.
Guy continues to tour heavily — he performed in Brazil this month — and will release a recording called Rhythm & Blues — a double-disc set featuring cameos by Gary Clark Jr., Keith Urban, Kid Rock and members of Aerosmith, on July 30, his 77th birthday.
"Funny thing about the blues," Guy wrote in his 2012 autobiography, When I Left Home. "You play 'em cause you got 'em. But when you play 'em, you lose 'em. If you hear 'em — if you let the music get into your soul — you also lose 'em. The blues chase the blues away. The true blues feeling is so strong that you forget everything else — even your own blues."
IF YOU GO
When: 7:30 p.m. June 21
Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St.
Tickets: Sold out
Learn more: Troubashow.com, Lexingtonoperahouse.com, Buddyguy.net
Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.