The Rolling Stones’ last live album was the usual re-hash of hits everyone has heard everywhere over the last forty years – hardly even worth stealing. But one track makes it worth buying the double-CD deluxe version – their cover of Muddy Waters’ fifties classic, “Champagne and Reefer.” (check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=724c8pQ9bRo)
Blues legend Buddy Guy is guesting on the track, and what a difference it makes. It makes a difference to the way the Stones play: just his sheer presence on stage lifts their turgid, blues-by-sleepwalking stodge out of the sonic morass. Then after the first verse, Jagger steps back from the mike and Buddy thunders in, “Lorrrrd there shouldn’t be no law/If a maaaann wanna smoke a little dope..!”
In that voice you hear the sorrow of the cotton fields; the joy of early bluesman Charlie Patton dying young with his women and whiskey; the savagery of Jim Crow laws and the casual racist brutality of the plantations; a drunk shooting out the lights in a thirties juke-joint, and two hundred and fifty gigs a year from 1952 right up to today.
Buddy has seen it all and written the book on the blues. And when he finishes the verse and leans back for a solo, it shows. He takes one note and bends it all out of shape, reaching up into a kaleidoscoping tone, swooping down and round the guitar neck, wringing every ounce out of that instrument.
No wonder Jimi Hendrix used to cut his gigs in the backing band for the Isley brothers to go and watch Buddy Guy play. No wonder this is the only song on the entire CD that seems to get the audience pumped. Everyone knows what matters when they see it – and Buddy Guy means business.
Maybe the only piece of sadness in the whole affair is the thought that so little of what’s in the mainstream now seems real. So much is spun, managed and manicured out of existence – and whenever we find something real, it seems to get stamped on fast. It feels like the fifty-year pattern of youth needing to express itself and show the older generation a thing or two is going in to reverse gear. These days, it’s men in their seventies such as Buddy who can show us all about suffering. And joy. And pleasure. In a word, they teach us the meaning of authenticity, something we all urgently need to recapture if we want to find meaning today, when the consumer culture we’ve been used to all our lives is disappearing like snow off a hot stone.