From the stage, the guitar player emphasizes a lyric’s sexual innuendo with a pelvic thrust, jokes with the crowd about their lackluster singing — ”I didn’t come here tonight for you to screw that song up,” he says, using a different word than “screw” — and plays a solo using a drumstick and then a towel instead of a guitar pick.
Watching Buddy Guy wow a crowd with his guitar playing, singing, and showmanship, it’s difficult to imagine that the blues legend has embarked on his last tour. But unlike so many other musicians who say goodbye, then keep coming back for more, Guy sounds serious. After all, he did turn 87 this summer.
“I’m getting up in age now, and I’d feel like I’m cheating people if I can’t give them 100 percent like I could 50 years ago,” Guy says in a recent phone interview. “I don’t think I’d be comfortable with being rolled out in a chair and sitting there like B.B. King did.”
Guy isn’t taking a seat just yet. His “Damn Right Farewell Tour” comes to the Wilbur in Boston on Tuesday and the Chevalier Theatre in Medford on Wednesday. [UPDATE: Guy’s two local shows have been postponed to May 6 and May 8 “due to a medical issue affecting the artist.”]
While Guy will soon permanently park his touring bus, he might play a few major festivals here and there. “The New Orleans Jazz Festival guy told me he wants me to play till I leave here, so I’ll do that till I can’t stand up,” he says. “I’ll play concerts just to let people know I’m still here but also to keep the blues alive.”
Guy, who has done more than any other blues artist in recent decades to boost younger artists, credits King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and others for paving a path and teaching him everything he knows. But to his contemporaries, young and old, Guy is a true original.
“Buddy didn’t color within the lines, and he wasn’t afraid to push the boundaries of blues music,” says Kenny Wayne Shepherd.
“B.B. was the good guy and Buddy Guy was the bad boy,” says Cristone “Kingfish” Ingram. “He’s the one I immediately wanted to be like, and I’ve definitely emulated him.”
Robert Randolph is two decades older than the 24-year-old Ingram but gushes the same way. “He’s badass Buddy Guy,” he says, adding that he was blown away by Guy’s “wild aggression and note-bending” the first time he heard “Stone Crazy” at age 13. “He’s the coolest cat for all of us in my generation,” an “American treasure.”
Robert Cray, 70, remembers going with bandmates Richard Cousins and Curtis Salgado to see Guy and Junior Wells for the first time more than four decades ago. His influence had already reached beyond the blues, Cray says — Guy’s “crazy licks” and feedback were more daring than his predecessors’ and influenced rock stars like Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck.
“We were standing outside the club and Buddy and Junior pulled up in a van,” Cray recalls. “We wanted to say hi but we were just awestruck, so we just stood there and watched them walk into the building.”
Samantha Fish loves that Guy has eschewed the polish of other Chicago musicians, keeping a raw energy and attitude that harkens back to Waters and Wolf. “He’s edgy and very rock ’n’ roll and in your face,” she says.
But she adds that there’s a sophistication to his playing too. “He’s such a conversational performer, the way he emotes with the guitar, he makes the guitar sound like a human voice — he’ll say something then talk back with the guitar. It’s not a million notes and crazy flourishes, he just knows how to build a solo, saying something powerful and melodic.”
Randolph says opening for Guy nearly 17 years ago shaped his playing. “I played every note I could play, and then he went up and just bent four notes,” he says. “I thought maybe I should stop playing so many notes.”
But it’s what Guy does with those songs live that makes him the legend he is today. “Records are the legacy you leave behind, but when I think of Buddy, it’s as a live performer, with his larger-than-life persona on stage,” Fish says.
Quinn Sullivan, the New Bedford native who began playing live with Guy at the age of 8, says he learned “how to conduct a crowd” from watching the master. “No matter how he’s feeling he makes everyone feel like they’re in a living room with him,” he says.
Bobby Rush, who has known Guy since the 1950s (he says he put in a good word for Guy at a club when Guy first arrived in Chicago from Louisiana), says talk of Guy’s showmanship shouldn’t overshadow his guitar chops. “He’s one of the best guitar players ever,” says Rush, who turns 90 in November. (”Buddy calls me ‘Old Man,’” he says.)
Ingram sees it all as of a piece. In his teens he was dazzled by videos of Guy taking his guitar into the crowd to excite fans, but Guy was also “a master of dynamics, of playing softly and then bringing it back up again. Mr. Guy has that balance of having great skill and being a great entertainer who has the crowd in the palm of his hands.”
Ingram’s admiration extends to Guy’s singing. “He has tons of range vocally — he can get high like Prince and low like John Lee Hooker.”
Cray agrees, saying Guy truly is the complete package. “Watch him stand back from the microphone and project with such power, like Mahalia Jackson.”
Complimenting Guy’s vocals, Eric Gales momentarily goes too far. “I may even be more a fan of his singing than his guitar playing,” he says before laughing and adding, “I can’t really say that, but his singing is very powerful.”
But what his fellow musicians might cherish the most is what Guy has done to keep the blues alive.
“He’s such a great guy and a great bluesman but also he knows the blues gets less play, so he always promotes it,” Rush says. He recalls Guy telling him a decade ago that running his Chicago blues club was exhausting but that he wouldn’t shut it down. “He said, ‘If I close it, I won’t have a place to employ other musicians and other people — so many of them have no other place to go.”
Guy’s support for other artists extends well beyond his club. “He has done the most out of anybody in reaching a hand out to the younger generation and using his platform to give them some shine,” Gales says. “That’s priceless.”
Sullivan, 24, credits Guy’s guidance as “life-changing.” The bluesman mentored Sullivan onstage and in the studio for a decade as he came of age. “It brought so many opportunities my way,” he says. “His message and integrity will live on with me and the other people he influenced over the years.”