“Whatever you see tonight, I didn’t rehearse it,” Buddy Guy told the crowd toward the end of Monday’s “Austin City Limits” taping at ACL Live. That wasn’t just a line. Usually, artists who play the iconic TV show make sure their performance is fine-tuned with an afternoon run-through that carefully adheres to the set list. But Buddy didn’t even HAVE a set list.
Once he takes the stage, you can see why. At 82, the legendary blues guitarist and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer has been doing this for long enough to know better than anyone what works best for him, and that’s mostly living in the moment. Sure, he’s got habits he’ll work into most every show — rubbing the guitar against his backside to make a squeal/scrape sound with the strings, or wandering out into the crowd to play close-up for some lucky fans. But mostly he’s just following his instincts, and feeding off the energy of the audience.
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There was plenty of energy in the crowd on this night, as Guy heartily acknowledged early on. “We don’t get this kind of response everywhere we go — that’s why I like coming here,” he said as he wound down a 20-minute version of the Willie Dixon classic “Hoochie Coochie Man.” He teased the audience on occasion for not answering his call-and-response vocal cues loudly enough, but it always had the desired effect: By the time he got to the end of the roof-raising title track to his Grammy-winning 1994 album “Slippin’ In,” he had everyone in the room shouting along to its chorus.
Guy worked in newer material alongside the old favorites, delighting the crowd with the lively “Cognac” — pronounced “coe-nee-ack” in his charmingly drawn-out drawl — from this year’s album “The Blues Is Alive and Well.” He gave credit to drummer Tom Hambridge, the song’s co-writer, noting that Hambridge has also produced his last several albums. Props also went out to guitarist Ric Hall, keyboardist Marty Sammon and bassist Orlando Wright, who were the perfect backing crew all night long. They held back to a near whisper when called for, thundered forth when the moment arrived, and stayed right in the groove throughout.
Guy’s ties to Austin run deep. He has a long history with Antone’s nightlcub, he’s used Austin players such as Tommy Shannon, Chris Layton and David Grissom on his records, and he’s previously appeared on “Austin City Limits” four times, all at the old KLRU Studio 6A location — most recently for 2014’s inaugural Austin City Limits Hall of Fame induction ceremony, where he jammed for the first time ever with Willie Nelson in helping to induct his late friend Stevie Ray Vaughan.
When Guy played ACL Live in 2015, he brought out Chicago transplant James Cotton, the legendary blues harmonica ace who moved to Austin in his final years, to join him onstage. Cotton died last year, but Guy also loves to share the spotlight with younger players, and so near the end of Monday’s show he brought out 19-year-old guitarist Quinn Sullivan (the opening act on that 2015 show) for a sweet but hot and soulful take on John Hiatt’s “Feels Like Rain.”
Sullivan stayed aboard for the rest of the ride, getting some spotlight solos and engaging in hot six-string duels with Guy as they roamed through licks that nodded to the influence of guitar greats such as B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. The finale was a bit abrupt — unrehearsed, naturally — as Guy set down his guitar while the band played on, wandered back out into the crowd to toss a few guitar picks to fortunate fans, and finally ambled off with a big smile and a wave, leaving his mates to finish it off with a closing jam.