Roy Buchanan – When A Guitar Plays The Blues : Album Review

Alligator continue their passion for their reviving and reminding of the giants, Roy Buchanan with one of the longer cast shadows.

Re-release date: 21st July 2023

Label: Alligator

Format: CD / digital

I am uncertain why it tends only to be relative nerds and ne’er-do-wells like me who routinely include Buchanan in the list of guitar greats. For it takes but a casual listen to appreciate the truth of any such claim, his seemingly effortless grasp of the notes, coupled with an intrinsic gift to reel them off in the right order. The Stones knew this, back in the days when they were seeking to find a replacement for Brian Jones, the story being he was seriously considered, amongst others. A lovely idea, had it happened, the soberly bearded and be-hatted Buchanan surely a sore thumb in the satins and swagger of Mick’n’Keef, however exquisite his play, but it never materialised, giving Buchanan a second memorable epithet to add to his mystique. Not only had he ‘turned down the Stones’, ahead of that, a TV documentary had him pegged as ‘the best unknown guitarist in the world’. Which, to an extent, was how he died, by his own hand, in a police cell, having been picked up for public intoxication, his on-off battle with booze having again taken the upper hand.

WaGPtB was his the first time he had been given full artistic freedom in the studio, earlier releases having tended to have him reined in a little, to suit the label or his management. His first recording for Alligator in 1985, it is fitting that the same label still exists today, and is able to present this timely reminder, as they remain a premier label for the blues as a genre, both in the historical sense and through showcasing newer, up and coming talent. Making full use of then studio capabilities, as well as a many of his own invention, Buchanan sings and plays the life out of nine compositions, many his own, leading a hand-picked team of Morris Jennings on drums, Larry Exum on bass, Bill Held on keys and, on second guitar, Criss Johnson, stalwarts all of the blues and r’n’b scenes. And for those who baulk at the word sings, as, to be kind, his own voice is a fairly rudimentary tool, there are a couple of guest with no shortage of vocal voltage to bolster up that end of the balance.

The first sound you hear might confound, so initially redolent it is the howl of blues harp, ahead of clocking it is in fact guitar, which echoes all around, ahead of breaking into the paradox of a distorted Bach cantata. No need to wonder if this is a new direction to like, soon enough the band thump in, piano, bass and drums, an orthodox blues progression. Orthodox bar the flight of notes, that is, stretched and bent within an inch of their lives, escaping in, alternately, resounding peels or rippling flurries. Near speaking, Buchanan intones the message: “you get the strangest feeling when a guitar plays the blues“, his mission statement in a couple of verses. 12 bars had never sounded so equivalently rooted in time yet soaring into space. The band provide all the scaffolding you could need or want, as Buchanan shreds toward the end, before ever there were such a thing. You’d think the song Buchanan’s own, but it actually stems from the pen of Harvard Hables and ‘Mr Moonlight’ himself, Roy Lee Johnson, and was earlier covered by Albert Collins amongst others. I think it fair to say it now belongs to Buchanan. Followed by a nice grimy bit of shuffle, funk to the fore, called Chicago Workshop, Exum’s bass takes you on a prowl around the city at night, while Buchanan first curls out some slow bending notes. An instrumental, it goes bonkers into the second half, giving Bonamassa et al a showcase to watch and learn how a tune can be maintained, whatever the speed of cascading notes. A second instrumental, Mrs Pressure, also by Buchanan, shows off the slower side, with echoes of Freddie King/Peter Green, depending on where you heard that style first. Some exemplary volume control shows he could teach the proggers a thing or two about that, too. Mrs Pressure? his first guitar tutor!

Possibly the best known track is A Nickel And A Nail, with the wise engagement of Otis Clay to give a soulful thrashing to the O.V. Wright standard. Buchanan shows a further stylistic range to his already extensive palette. A righteous blast, vocally and axe-wise, it can’t help but make you smile, even as it seems to fade a minute or three early. A good old fashioned instrumental boogie follows, the sort of thing that, less well, would pad out the length of albums by vocal groups, like the Beach Boys, or garage band instrumentalists, like the Champs. Some gloriously cheesy sax is the extra ingredient, from Sonny Seals, providing contrast to the brief bursts of fire emanating from Buchanan. More vocals next, this time courtesy Gloria Hardiman, better known for gospel over blues, she providing quite the cross between Aretha and Etta, with Held now switching to organ. Buchanan is back on Chicago mode and the fewer notes he plays, the more his guitar sings, harmonics dropping out in freefall.

Those who are familiar with Buchanan’s exquisite version of the country song, Sweet Dreams, will already know this, but the guitarist really was a country boy, that fact sometimes surprising both audience and band members alike. The tune, Country Boy nails that fact, in, otherwise, a slick walking blues, with a near-spoken vocal, a distant relative of those Commander Cody boogie-woogie recreations like Beat Me Daddy Eight To The Bar or It’ll Be Me. In fact, Buchanan’s voice is a spit for the good ol’ Commander himself, George Frayn. The solos are pure blues, mind, with an incredible arpeggiated rumble arising out the final minute or so.

If points were awarded for titles alone, sneaking Godzilla Through The Alley would gain some points, an ominous mood piece, the guitar howling like a demented siren over an organ/bass led cut and thrust, that hoovers up max points on instrumental prowess regardless. As it develops, the guitarist duels with himself, switching between tones. In truth, this is perhaps the only time where it all gets a bit too much, all look at me, as one party trick gets let out the bag, one after the other, so maybe more to be admired than liked. Yet, astonishingly, the closing number, Hawaaian Puch, purporting to be the same, gets away with it, possibly as being so completely OTT. Applying slide for the first time, altogether unusually for him, it is a chaotic demonstration of quite where you can go with a bottleneck. It also gives Johnson a swift moment of his own in the spotlight, between Buchanan’s volleys through the chicane. And that’s it. Exhausted?

Make no bones about it, this is not remotely ‘new’ music, even for the 1980s, or breaking any idea of new ground. This is tried and tested, roadworthy music, blues circa 1940s to early 1960. What is new is the energy and enthusiasm to blows new life into that tradition. A classic then, it remains so now. Play it to advocates of all the UK blues rockers, yer Claptons, Becks and Pages, who may have offered a subtler variation around the concept, with that mood seeping into many current US exponents, but, for overall beef and balls, this is the ‘king biscuit.

Here’s a later, live version of the title track, in full extended mode, just to give a flavour of what he was capable of.

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