Back in 1968, hot on the heels of his pop success with "Pictures of Matchstick Men" by a British group named Status Quo, Marshall Chess got the nifty idea of updating two celebrated blues figures on the Chess roster by immersing them in the hip(pie) new sound of the day. The resulting albums were Muddy Waters' Electric Mud and a Howlin' Wolf LP with this unwieldy title: This Is Howlin' Wolf's New Album. He Doesn't Like It. He Didn't Like His First Electric Guitar Either. Both albums were summarily dismissed as dog shit by critics while promptly selling in unprecedented numbers. I mention this bit of dubious blues history because a similar kind of recasting was recently done with former Chess recording artist Buddy Guy on Sweet Tea (Silvertone 01241-41751-2; 54:24). The difference here is that the producer, one Dennis Herring (Sweet Tea is the name of his recording studio in Oxford, Miss.), has a much purer vision of how to organically incorporate Buddy into the updated mix than Marshall Chess did with his Muddy and Wolf experiments. By surrounding Guy's patented raw appeal with an even rawer sounding backup band on a set of crude, hypnotic one-chord vamps fueled by fuzz-heavy bass lines and brutal backbeats, producer Herring has connected with the new alternative blues crowd-the same young thrash mavens who recently packed the Fat Possum Blues Caravan shows on the JVC Jazz Festival circuit-while also concocting the roughest, toughest, scariest Buddy Guy album ever.
The Fat Possum reference is especially relevant since all the tunes here, with the exception of two, were written by artists on that North Mississippi juke label, including Junior Kimbrough, T-Model Ford and Robert Cage. Sweet Tea opens with a startling confession by the 65-year-old Guy on "Done Got Old," rendered with stark, bone-chilling intimacy as Buddy whispers close-miked about how he "Can't do the things I used to do/'Cause I'm an old man" while accompanying himself on minimal acoustic guitar. The "Helter Skelter"-ish "Baby Please Don't Leave Me" opens with some eerie, funeral-parade drumming, cueing some impossibly low subharmonic bass lines, setting the hoodoo vibe of this bluesy grunge fest. "Look What All You Got" is a mangled blues filtered through a Ramones aesthetic, while "Tramp" is a twisted take on a Lowell Fulson tune, rendered with Tom Waitsian weirdness and featuring a killing, distortion-laced Hendrixian solo. The hypnotic, heavy-duty one-chord vamping returns on a savage treatment of Cedell Davis' "She's Got the Devil in Her" while the 12-minute "I Gotta Try You Girl" is dark, spooky and full of bad intentions. Both tunes hinge on a simple belief: fuzz bass rules! "Who's Been Foolin' You" is pure nasty. And Buddy testifies with unparalleled feeling on his socially conscious closer, "It's a Jungle Out There." From start to finish, Sweet Tea is imbued with a raw, punk attitude, which will help it easily cross over to the alternative rock crowd. At the same time, hardcore blues fans will dig the wild abandon and sheer intensity of Guy's remarkable playing and singing throughout. It ain't pretty, but it's real.