Buddy Guy drove his musical Mack truck right through the center of a packed Boarding House Park this past Saturday night and left everybody staggering from the blues wallop that he put on us. We go to the pavilion on these nights like lowly moths drawn to lamps, hoping to be lifted up, to be transported, to be moved in a visceral way—sometimes soothingly and sometimes getting all fired up. Because that’s what the live amplified music does. It gets inside our bones, runs up and down our capillaries, and vibrates our nerves. Buddy Guy and his guitar (Buddy Guy-tar?) are one organism. He’s 77 years young. Rolling Stone magazine put him on the list of the 100 best guitars players ever. He’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. He holds the National Medal for Arts and was honored by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. His history stretches from Muddy Waters and B. B. King to Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. But back to the guitar. Music is music because it isn’t words, so it is very difficult to try to frame in language what happens when he puts his mind and hands to work on the instrument. I was listening and being swarmed by the sound, and at the same time thinking about how to describe what I was experiencing. He turns the guitar into an electric voice of its own, especially when he is in overdrive on the strings. The guitar becomes a creature in his hands as he slings his fist and picks the notes and plucks the strings. It’s more than a machine, which of course it is, but it seems to come alive at his touch—and the sounds they make together go right to a person’s core. Our reflex is to start moving. Head bobbing. Foot tapping. Hand slapping thigh. Whole body going to the beat. He played loud, and he played soft. He shouted. He crooned. He wailed. He smoothed. He had a force that belied eight decades on Earth. Early in the show he walked into the audience and played among the people, calling a town meeting on the grass. Toward the end he went back on the edge of the stage and handed out guitar picks, maybe 50 or so. He signed a guitar that one man offered up in homage to the king. He told stories and encouraged people to read his book. He played “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Skin Deep,” “Fever,” and Cream’s “Strange Brew.” He lamented that people cannot hear blues music on the radio. He told us what Muddy Waters told him at the end: Don’t let the blues die.
There was something else going on all night. Buddy Guy kept praising the young guitar virtuoso Quinn Sullivan, who had opened the show with 45 minutes of blistering blues, channeling all the guitar gods of the known world. Quinn is 14 years old. Repeat, 14 years old. He has been artistically adopted by Guy. Do you remember that TIME magazine cover story about Bruce Springsteen that said Bruce was “Rock’s New Sensation?” He had already been declared “the future of rock and roll” by critic Jon Landau. Buddy Guy sees high-school freshman Quinn Sullivan of New Bedford, Mass., as “the future of the blues.” This is master territory. Genius land. The kid is amazing. And Buddy Guy kept telling people to support him, buy his album, help him make it big. Buddy brought Quinn back up at the end to join the fabulous band and play some tunes including an extended riff on “Sunshine of Your Love.” The pavilion was shaking. The wisteria on the green pipes grew and twisted another six inches during the show, its fibers so stimulated by the sonic Miracle-Gro.
And then Buddy Guy did the coolest thing I’ve seen at Boarding House. After doling out scores of guitar picks to the crowd, and while the band was thumping away and wringing the guts out of their guitars and drums and keyboards, Mr. Buddy Guy slipped off-stage—with the audience on its feet and applauding madly for the encore. Through the breaks in the stage backdrop a careful observer could see red taillights moving rapidly towards the foot of John Street at the corner of the park. He was gone. Like that. Always leave them wanting more. So sayeth P. T. Barnum, who knew show biz. There and gone. The legend had been among us.