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MUSIC REVIEW

King and Guy, two blues guitar giants, are still electric

By Jonathan Perry
Globe Correspondent / February 24, 2009
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Despite their connection to each other as prime examples of a vanishing breed - American blues guitarists who blazed bold new trails during the 1950s and '60s - B.B. King and Buddy Guy could not have been more different Sunday night.

Both men have always been strong, distinctive vocalists, but King's calling card on guitar has always been one of tasteful restraint, with spare, stinging accents and single-note sustains.

Guy's signature, meanwhile, is an explosive, unhinged virtuosity that - dating back to his days as one of the hottest session musicians in Chicago - has caused admirers from Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page to Jimi Hendrix to scramble for superlatives. Eric Clapton simply called him the best guitarist on the planet.

What the two blues giants did share besides the bill at the sold-out House of Blues was a deeply protective, wholly palpable love for the music and an astonishing ability to shed years - even decades - as they played.

The Mississippi-born King, now 83 and relegated to playing from a seated position due to his long battle with diabetes, still performed - with elegance, verve, and distinction - for nearly two hours. Surrounded by a superb eight-piece band dressed in tuxedos, King was in robust form, especially on swinging covers of Big Bill Broonzy's "Key to the Highway" and Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean." (The latter came from his recent Grammy-winning album, "One Kind Favor").

King crowned his set with a poignant, still-powerful reading of his masterstroke, "The Thrill Is Gone," which - if anything - proved precisely the opposite. The thrill of B.B. King's blues, for him and for us, remains. (And to the few grumbling folks irritated by King's penchant for lengthy song preambles, a news flash: King has always liked to talk to his audience; these days he talks a little more. After 60 years on the road, the man's entitled to tell a few stories, don't you think?)

Guy, the young whippersnapper of the two titans at age 72, got the night off to a spirited start by strafing the joint with screaming, stabbing shards of guitar noise and a howling hurricane of a voice to match. It was all part and parcel of his opening number, "Best Damn Fool," and proved the galvanizing highlight of a 60-minute set studded with tributes to mentor Muddy Waters ("Hoochie Coochie Man"; "She's Nineteen Years Old") and flush with Guy's guitar wizardry.

Unfortunately, the Louisiana-born showman's set was diluted by the distracting guest appearance of 9-year-old guitar prodigy Quinn Sullivan, a precocious New Bedford native whom Guy has taken under his wing. Guy was generous to cede the spotlight, but we wish he'd stayed in it a little longer.

B.B. KING and BUDDY GUY At: the House of Blues, Sunday

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