Buddy Guy – Bring ‘Em In

Before blowing every wanna-be blues stringer out of the water at the age of 70-something with the amazing Skin Deep album, legendary guy Buddy Guy put out an album in 2005 that I guess was supposed to be sold on the premise that he has a lot of guest stars (kind of like Supernatural by Santana, who incidentally appears on this very recording). The album turned out to be amazing… except for the guest stars… which includes John Mayer.

So am I going to spend the entire write-up complaining about John Mayer? I sure hope so, let’s talk about Bring ‘Em In:

I love Buddy Guy, I really do, but there is something about him and the other aging blues stringers that just makes me sad. The fact is, they’re all going away some day, and there is nobody to replace them. Oh sure Derek Trucks may some day grow out of pony-tail sporting pothead teenager and more live up to his Southern Rock-Blues roots, and there are perhaps some other up-and-comers who may somehow rise from the gutter and, without going through the Los Angeles sparkle machine, wind up keeping the meaning of the Blues alive, but as far as I can tell, right now we’ve got plenty of amazing blues guitarists, but they’re all getting very old now.

Still, while we’ve still got Buddy, he’s making some amazing records out there. The first four tracks of Bring ‘Em In, while not as brash and loud and soulful as Skin Deep (we have producer Steve “Blues? You mean adult-contemporary, right?” Jordan to thank for that), really hit it out of the park for guitar work and soulful vocals, “Somebody’s Sleeping In My Bed” being a particular highlight. As I remarked when I wrote up Skin Deep, Guy’s vocals combine the energy of a man of 20 with the wisdom and experience of a man of 150, and his guitar speaks the Blues language with such fluency you’d think he was born in it (and he was).

So why even have guest stars? The first one kind of jumps at you out of nowhere; it’s Santana and the song is Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You”. Now, I think Santana is a good player, and I don’t mean any insult when I say this: the man’s got exactly 2 riffs to his name, so you can pretty much predict how all his solos are going to go. Indeed, apparently Santana always brings his salsa rhythm section with him for all his songs, because bongos appear at the beginning of this track and disappear right after. Then we get “On A Saturday Night” which was given a little too much of the R&B polish to be considered “Blues”, though you can tell Buddy is working his hardest to make the song retain some excitement despite sounding at home as the theme song to some sitcom.

Speaking of R&B, “Ain’t No Sunshine”, with a reverby acoustic guitar solo and vocals by Tracy Chapman, actually works fairly well considering it would be defined as a tragedy if called “The Blues”, especially when the record get stuck on Tracy singing “I know-I know-I know-I know-” about 800 times. Still, once Buddy’s voice comes in you may think “Yes! I want more of that!”, but then the song starts to fade out and you can at least rest easy knowing… oh wait, John Mayer’s track is next… oh no.

Now, my problem with John Mayer is this: he’s a rich Conneticut-born white (and I don’t just mean white because of his particular shade of melanin, I mean white) kid with a shiny Berklee music degree, a Xanax prescription, and a shiny guitar with Stevie Ray Vaughan’s name on it who is trying to sing the Blues. Yes, I know that the end of that sentence should have been “Who works at Guitar Center or Abercrombie & Fitch”, but in fact he only works for them when it comes to posing for posters to go on their walls. John Mayer is a man with no soul, and you can’t hide that when you are trying to play the most soulful genre in music. Blues is about life getting you down, and trust me when I say that being rich, college-educated, white, rich, and being the go-to rebound for Hollywood’s skinniest blonde actresses puts you at a severe disadvantage when you’re trying to convey any kind of heartbreak for the common man through music. I didn’t have a problem with John Mayer back when he was the next Dave Matthews, he filled that niche quite nicely, being vacuous and putting that nasally voice to work de-pantsing college freshman girls faster than if there were a coupon for a free small-of-the-back tattoo for sleeping with him. It’s when this privileged little tyke suddenly decided that, in having his parents purchase a top-of-the-line music education for him, that he had the Blues and the means by which to convey them. Indeed, every attempt he has made so far has been absolutely flat, soulless, and devoid of any kind of emotion, like someone who clearly can’t speak English giving a Shakespearean oration spelled out phonetically.

Mayer’s contribution to the song is minimal, he whines out his lines and harmonizes with himself, and Pro-tools make him sound like the robot he is, and the song is already uninteresting so really his guitar playing on it only exacerbates that by a little.

“Lay Lady Lay” is similarly bland, and I don’t know whether to blame Anthony Hamilton, Robert Randolph, or just blame John Mayer again for putting his sterilization stink all over the last track and having it bleed over into this one. Either way, it dissipates just in time for a song called “Cheaper To Keep Her/Blues In The Night”, which recall the excitement I used to have for this album, even if the production makes it sound like everyone but Buddy are trying not to wake up the neighbors. Either way, the song is great because the idea that it’s “Cheaper to keep her” is because alimony is an expensive bitch. I love when Blues gets misogynist, how I wish Albert Collins was still alive.

There actually is a great collaboration on this album, and it probably won’t surprise you to know that it’s from Keith Richards. Yeah, sure, Keith is only still with us because of sorcery, but he still contributes some awesome guitar licks to “The Price You Gotta Pay”, which is an emotionally honest song about how cheating is wrong. It’s unfortunate that the song is on the ass-end of the album, and you have to wade through John Mayer, “I know-I know-I know- I know”, Anthony Hamilton and that awful number with Santana (for the record, there is yet to be a version of “I Put A Spell On You” that does Screamin’ Jay even an ounce of justice) to get to it. That, indeed, is the price you gotta pay.

So yeah, Bring ‘Em In is a good album because Buddy Guy is awesome, but it falls just short of being an awesome album (like Damn Right, I’ve Got The Blues and Skin Deep) because there is a deliberate attempt to sterilize and clean up The Blues being made here by people who just don’t understand. The fact that they did all of this with Buddy’s implied consent means that the future of The Blues is a grim one indeed, unless some folks come along in these trying times and start making some more Blues without the candy-ass production and derivative pandering to the pop audience trying to make Blues sound hip. The Blues ain’t hip, people, it’s real.


2 Responses

  1. Strangely “someone who clearly can’t speak English giving a Shakespearean oration spelled out phonetically.” is something that ACTUALLY HAPPENS in Sukiyaki Western Django. Though that movie is interesting, unlike John Mayer, proud owner of the world’s third or fourth most punchable face.

    Also I’d argue that Nina Simone’s I Put a Spell on You does the original justice, though my love of Nina Simone might influence that judgment. It’s not better than the original, just different and still good.

  2. While I too consider Nina Simone above reproach, I think it’s the wild energy behind the original recording, those slightly dissonant notes walking up to that first chord, and Screamin’ Jay’s powerful voice just going absolutely nuts over this most basic of lyrical ideas (plus the voodoo implications are something that only the man with the bone through his nose could pull off), that are at the core of what I love about that song. For that reason, I have yet to hear a version that really captures that like the original, but oh well at least there’s always the original!

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