Buddy Guy Brings Star Appeal, Authenticity to Blues on the Fox
Admission-funded summer blues festivals need a really big tent when it comes to booking. There are only about four real blues superstars nowadays who can drive tickets sales: B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Gary Clark Jr. and the Black Keys. Even Blues on the Fox in Sweet Home Chicago-accessible Aurora, Ill., couldn’t schedule six acts over two days without expanding the definition of the blues to include N’Awlins gumbo (Dr. John), sacred steel and funk (Robert Randolph & the Family Band), swamp pop (JJ Grey & Mofro), blue-eyed soul-blues (Tommy Castro) and blues-rock (the Swamp Foxes).
For the 17th edition of Blues on the Fox, an event that christened the 10,500-capacity RiverEdge Park on June 14–15, Guy brought both star appeal and authenticity as the one act that represented the up-from-the-Delta Chicago blues. He even skipped the higher-profile Chicago Blues Festival the previous weekend to appear in Aurora as the Saturday-night curtain-closer.
Guy, 76, often serves more sizzle than steak onstage, with showmanship and guitar pyrotechnics the most vital components of his shows. The songs themselves are mere excuses to dazzle audiences with rapid-fire flights of fancy on the fretboard. Guy has a new two-disc set, Rhythm & Blues (RCA), scheduled to drop on July 30, which could have supplied his Fox River gig with a welcome infusion of new material. Instead he delivered a by-the-numbers post-1990s greatest-hits set, plus three Muddy Waters standards and his trusty rock medley. It works for the Rolling Stones, but Guy should be held to a higher standard given his senior statesman role in bringing the Chicago blues to the world.
Still, when Guy delivered his extended tribute to Cream, John Lee Hooker, Jimi Hendrix and other legends, almost everyone near the stage rose from their aluminum benches to hail this Stratocaster master with the bottomless bag of tricks: playing the guitar high above his head, behind his butt, atop a speaker bank; pounding the strings with a rolled-up towel; roaming the expansive stage and baiting the crowd to roar for more. Guy once used these 15 minutes as a teaching tool, explaining how the blues was exported to young Brits, who then “invaded” the United States armed with the most indigenous form of American music. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt: His set was shortened in the haste to finish up before an expected storm hit.
Randolph, who joined Guy for a disjointed jam, showed during his earlier set that his music has evolved from the tradition of the charismatic Christian church. While his contemporaries such as the Campbell Brothers—his partners in his Slide Brothers side project—and the Lee Boys remain devoted to that style, Randolph has been liberated through his success with the jam-band market. The intense, propulsive, transcendental nature of sacred steel continues to emerge in the Family Band’s extended jams, but the sound has evolved. It’s now more funk- and soul-oriented, with the rhythm section more prominent in the mix than Randolph’s pedal steel guitar.
Randolph’s new Blue Note album, Lickety Split (due July 16), is filled with life-affirming anthems that sound tailor-made for the festival setting. He featured four of the dozen new tunes—“Get Ready,” “New Orleans,” “Brand New Wayo” and “Born Again”—at Blues on the Fox. The group seems to have abandoned its instrument-swapping musical chairs routine, but there’s more than enough to hold an audience’s attention. While “Born Again,” the finale, is the sound of a thousand Top 40 hits, “Brand New Wayo” best exemplifies the group’s evolution. Loud, muscular and taut, the song took Randolph out of his pedal-steel seat to play electric guitar, aided by a long line of six-string audience volunteers who were each given a turn. The lengthy instrumental break offered an opportunity to appreciate the picturesque vision of the sun setting beyond the Fox River as a cloud bank rolled in.
The two-day festival caused no run on the box office, what with dicey weather, the expected startup snafus and an appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals by the Chicago Blackhawks. But the crowds were substantial, particularly for the longer Saturday program. Compared with its downtown cousin in Chicago’s Grant Park, Blues on the Fox is a more comfortable experience, offers better, cheaper concessions and can afford big-name acts that the free festival downtown cannot land. Unless you’re insistent on getting your Blues on the Fox for free, the new admission prices ranging from $10 to $50 seem like a relative bargain.