Buddy Guy commenced the third Tel Aviv Blues Festival without offering the usual platitudes. In fact, it would be at least 15 minutes of an ear-shattering version of “West End Blues” before he uttered a word to the adoring crowd at the Caesarea Amphitheater.
When he did speak, there were no greetings or introductions — he barreled ahead as if he hadn’t left the stage since his last show in 1993.
“I love it here,” he said. “Y’all gonna make me want to play all night.”
Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and trucker cap, the blues legend looked liked he could play all night if he wanted to, and as he crossed back and forth over the large stage one would hardly guess that he was two weeks shy of his 80th birthday.
In many ways, Buddy Guy is the antithesis of what an old bluesman is supposed to be. His furious strumming and heavily distorted guitar at times resembled speed metal more than traditional blues, ricocheting off the semicircular walls of the amphitheater at a volume slightly uncomfortable even for a reporter in his prime. He didn’t stick to one particular style, bouncing around from a clean sound back to distorted, old school blues to punchy rock riffs, and his jocular demeanor was anything but blue.
“People always ask me, ‘Do you have to suffer to play the blues?’” he said. “And I tell them ‘No, all you gotta do is just keep on livin’.”
Guy didn’t skimp on the profanity, but he also wooed the audience with well-intentioned if slightly misguided improvisations during his songs, such as “I came here to Jerusalem just to be with you.”
And after a particularly raunchy improvised line in “Hoochie Coochie Man” the performer looked at the crowd innocently and said, “What, I didn’t write this fuckin’ song.”
In all, the performance was equal parts crass, wild, humorous and soulful, peppered with homespun wisdom and always brimming with energy. And throughout, his showmanship predominated.
He of course performed his signature guitar imitations, doing impeccable impersonations of Junior Wells, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix.
His homage to the latter included playing behind his head, and strumming with various implements such as his teeth, a drumstick, and his derriere.
When the overly enthusiastic crowd mangled the participation part of a song (likely due to something lost in translation), Guy eased the tension with his playfully caustic humor.
“Now, wait a minute – when I need your help with a song, I didn’t come all the way out here for y’all to fuck it up,” he said, getting a roaring laugh.
The crowd was varied in terms of demographics – old and young, hippies next to grandparents, long hair and piercings together with kippot – but binding them was (in addition to the practically requisite cloud of pot smoke hanging over the crowd’s collective heads) an absolute die-hard love of the bluesman.
The cheering was long and frequent. Guy’s songs were accompanied by enthusiastic clapping, and particularly poignant couplets were punctuated with appreciative howls from the audience. The few quiet moments were quickly interrupted by shouting declarations of love from the bolder spectators.
During one such moment, a chain reaction of song requests began to ring out from all sides of the theater.
“Don’t tell me how to do my job,” Buddy joked.
“But seriously, I don’t put out a set list. If I do that, I’m playing what I want to hear. But when I hear it from you, what you want, it makes me feel good,” he continued before slipping into an incredibly moving rendition of “Skin Deep” that subdued even this rowdy audience.
Given the long, meandering, highly improvised jams, a set list might have proved redundant anyway. Much of the music probably didn’t fall under any song title, and it was often unclear where one song ended and the next began. Still, the hits were obvious and mostly performed in classic style.
In fact, the newest song he performed, “Born to Play Guitar” from his latest album of the same name, was absolutely stunning in its simplicity, its beauty stemming from its Delta roots. Despite all the gimmicks, songs like this remind you that Buddy Guy doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel – he was one of its inventors in the first place.
Many of the songs he performed were from the Muddy Waters era, such as “All Around the World” by Little Willie John, and “Hoodoo Man Bues” by Junior Wells.
And when it seemed like he had no tricks left up his sleeve, Buddy slipped into the crowd during “Slippin in on You,” doing a full six-minute jaunt among the thrilled fans, even stopping to sit next to one attractive lady.
Despite the unusual choice of not performing an encore, Guy did remain onstage for several minutes after the final number, flicking guitar picks into the crowd, shaking hands, and signing autographs. One fan even held up a guitar to be signed.
And though his performance was (pleasantly) coarse at times, there was still an element of the spiritual.
“My mother was a very religious woman,” he said, “but Lord knows, I never dreamed I’d make it over here.”
The Tel Aviv Blues Festival will continue through Saturday, July 16, with over 40 performers in 20 venues over the course of four days.