Blues music, more than perhaps any other genre, is full of stories of living fast and dying young, broke or unappreciated by the masses. This week’s Buddy Guy and Jonny Lang concert at the Township Auditorium showcases two of the style’s survivors, men who have made it to where they are despite the odds.
Buddy Guy’s career began in the late ’50s with a move from Louisiana to Chicago, where he became a session guitarist at the now legendary Chess records and played on sides from Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson, as well as his own early solo recordings. His late ’60s albums for Chess and then Vanguard Records were inspirations for subsequent British blues disciples, most notably Eric Clapton. At Guy’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2005, Slowhand testified, “He was for me what Elvis was probably like for other people.”
The blues are a fickle business when it comes to record sales, however, and even with almost an album a year for a good 20-year stretch — most released by overseas labels and later repackaged by indie blues imprints like Alligator or Blind Pig — Guy hadn’t really received much in the way of awards or industry recognition. In the ’70s his work with Junior Wells attracted the electrified end of the folk music boom, and the pair also recorded several albums of acoustic blues, showcasing Guy’s skills in both cases as a stinging, soulful guitarist with a singular style.
But it wasn’t until the ’90s that Guy began to reap the accolades that are so commonly associated with him today. His first three albums for Silvertone — the 1991 comeback smash Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues (featuring Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck), 1993’s Feels Like Rain and 1994’s Slippin’ In — all earned Grammy Awards. He’s been on the front line of lauded blues greats ever since, and rightly so. 2013’s Rhythm & Blues, a double album that finds the guitarist in fine form yet again, includes guest appearances by everyone from Kid Rock and Keith Urban to Beth Hart (on a smoking hot “What You Gonna Do About Me”), Gary Clark Jr. and Aerosmith.
Jonny Lang, on the other hand, burst upon the blues and rock scene with the 1997 debut Lie To Me when he was only 16. He followed up that multi-platinum hello with Wander This World in 1998. Both albums are full of the soul-inflected sound that Lang is known for — he’s as much a great blues and soul singer as he is a blistering guitarist, and it’s on songs such as “Still Rainin’” that he shows off both to the greatest effect.
The Jonny Lang story could have become another tale of music industry excess, but he took a different turn at the proverbial crossroads in 2000, becoming a Christian and putting a stop to what he describes in interviews as a period of alcoholism and drug abuse. The newly saved and sober Lang poured out his soul into some powerful gospel blues on 2006’s Turn Around, which hit number one on the Billboard Christian album chart. Since then Lang has been a fixture on the blues scene with 2009’s Live at the Ryman, which peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Blues Album chart, and last year’s Fight For My Soul, which hit the top spot on the same list.
Thus these two men are foils and allies, frequent tourmates who took different routes — and rode different sounds — to enduring success. Guy’s long road to recognition, respect, and reward as an elder statesman of the genre came from resilience and mounting influence, while Lang’s early accolades and inevitable fall from grace were arrested by his refusal to become yet another blues tragedy. Each is, in his own way, enjoying what could be seen as the pinnacle of their respective careers.
Buddy Guy and Jonny Lang play Township Auditorium on Saturday, Feb. 8. The Township is at 1703 Taylor St. Doors open at 7 p.m.; music starts at 8 p.m.; Tickets are $34-$79. Visit thetownship.org for more information.
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