Thursday, March 17, 2022

The Torch: Buddy Guy Pays it Forward

Regardless of genre, Buddy Guy is probably the most preeminent American musician who still performs regularly. (Happily, Charles Lloyd is also very active, but he is not as synonymous with jazz as Guy is with the blues.) Guy’s status as the dean of the bluesmen comes with a keen awareness of his responsibilities to the music, particularly his need to encourage younger generations to follow his example. Guy’s relationship with his presumptive heir, Quinn Sullivan is explored in Jim Farrell’s documentary, The Torch, which opens tomorrow in New York.

An artist of Buddy Guy’s stature is certainly worthy of competing documentary treatments, but as it happens,
The Torch and the recent Buddy Guy: The Blues Chase the Blues Away compliment each other nicely. Whereas the previous doc chronicled his life, period by period, Farrell largely focuses on Guy, the elder statesman and mentor of the blues. There is a little bit of biographical background, but not too much.

Guy always enjoys encouraging young blues musicians, so he was happy to let Sullivan join him on-stage one fateful night. However, the eleven-year-old guitarist surprised him, in quite a good wasy. Ten years later, Sullivan still regularly performs and records with Guy. The trick is establishing himself, in his own right. Fortunately, in addition to Guy’s mentorship, he has the support of producer-songwriter-drummer Tom Hambridge, whom he met through Guy.

Even though Guy is clearly preoccupied with the issue of the music’s future, he is clearly in good health and robust energy, despite being in his mid-eighties (at least during the pre-pandemic years Farrell was following him). As a result, the film has none of the tragic poignancy of
Keep on Keepin’ On, the Clark Terry-Justin Kauflin doc (and happily so). Guy could very well outlive all of us, but he is still mindful of the future. However, Farrell was able to concentrate on the music and the more practical lessons Guy imparts to Sullivan.

As you would expect, tunes like “Long Hard Road” and “Who’s Gonna Fill Those Shoes,” sound great. Obviously, Sullivan is no Buddy Guy yet. He is still a kid in his early 20’s, from a vastly different background. He has terrific chops, but gee whiz, being tipped as Guy’s successor in
The Torch must really ratchet up the pressure, so good luck to him.

Regardless, it is great fun to see Guy holding court and still playing at the top of his game. In addition to him and Sullivan, we also hear some nice playing from Hambridge and Carmen Vandenberg, who met Guy while she was playing with Jeff Beck. Together, they all suggest the blues are indeed alive and well, which is a very nice takeaway.

Both Buddy Guy docs are fine films, but
The Torch better showcases his (and Sullivan’s) music and offers more insights into the professional lives and creative processes of blues musicians, so it is the one we are likely to revisit sooner. It is intelligently focused, yet still deeply steeped in the blues. Very highly recommended, The Torch opens tomorrow (3/18) at the IFC Center in New York.