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Roy Buchanan 1st Album (1972)

Roy_Buchanan_-_Roy_Buchanan-frontFrom sfloman.com

Roy Buchanan was already a journeyman who was a longtime veteran of the small club circuit by the time the ’70s rolled around. Already a legend among hardcore music fans (some of whom actually believed the bogus legend about how he turned down a slot in The Rolling Stones) but unknown to the public at large, Roy had backed the likes of Dale Hawkins (famous for “Suzie Q”) and Dale’s cousin Ronnie Hawkins (most famous for his backing band, the Hawks, later The Band, whose young guitarist Robbie Robertson was actually schooled by Buchanan), among countless others.

You see, whereas most people say that they just want to be true to their music and aren’t interested in the trappings of stardom, this was actually true in the case of Buchanan, who preferred to play in the anonymity of the shadows rather than be the main guy under the spotlight. However, a talent such as Roy was only going to be “unknown” for so long, and in quick succession there was a Rolling Stone article touting “the worlds greatest unknown guitarist” followed by a similarly themed, extremely popular PBS TV special, followed by a sold out concert at Carnegie Hall.

This self-titled album (actually his third but the first two are hard to find and aren’t as good) soon followed, and it is a fine showcase for a superior guitarist, even if he was as unlikely a “guitar hero” as you’ll ever find; he was 32, overweight, and the father of 6 when he got his record deal with Polydor. This album is best known for containing Buchanan’s two most enduring tracks, a cover of Don Gibson’s “Sweet Dreams” and his own “The Messiah Will Come Again,” and both are exceptional.

“Sweet Dreams,” which was later brilliantly used by Martin Scorcese at the end of The Departed and which starts the album off, is a gorgeously melancholic instrumental. Simply put, Buchanan is arguably the most emotional guitarist ever, but be forewarned that the main emotion is pure abject sorrow; he and Duane Allman (who Scorcese also used in death scenes in Goodfellas with “Layla”), are the absolute masters of this melancholic playing style, and this song is as good an example of his playing as there is.

The purity of his tone and the way his guitar cries out is something to behold, and Dick Heintz’s swirling keyboards also add to the song’s haunting ambiance. The next song, a cover of Merle Haggard’s “I am a Lonesome Fugitive” with Chuck Tilley on vocals, is good but seems out of place coming hot on the heels of “Sweet Dreams,” and this jarring juxtaposition of styles is a problem that occurs throughout the album. Still, given Roy’s country roots (he grew up in Arkansas) I suppose it’s not that surprising, and like I said this version is good, and he does throw in some bluesy guitar licks amid the song’s laid-back, easy going country groove.

“Cajun” is a short instrumental with a spicy shuffle groove, and “John’s Blue,” another instrumental, isn’t much of a “song” proper, more an excuse for more of Roy’s crying blues guitar and soulful extended solos (Heintz adds some sparse piano as well). Of course, that’s exactly what I want to hear, not “Haunted House,” a merely decent country boogie that comes next. “Pete’s Blue,” another (you guessed it) instrumental, again features minimal accompaniment, as again Roy’s starkly emotional soloing is all that’s needed. Which brings us to “The Messiah Will Come Again,” his signature song.

The first two and a half minutes feature Roy whispering a ghostly spoken word sermon in his preacher Elvis delivery, but the song really begins in earnest thereafter, with yet another beautifully sorrowful instrumental passage. Roy’s incredible guitar tone is front and center, while Heintz’s atmospheric keyboards heighten the funereal mood. At times Roy speedily hits notes that didn’t even seem to previously exist, but despite these amazingly original and distinctive fretboard fireworks, the best moments are when his guitar slowly, agonizingly cries out, with all the feeling and pathos he can muster.

Needless to say, the Hank Williams cover, “Hey Good Lookin’,” another country boogie (again with Tillis on vocals) but slower and lighter than “Haunted House,” is completely anti-climactic and only serves to underscore the hit-and-miss nature of the album. Still, the album is partially decent (“Cajun,” “Haunted House,” “Hey Good Lookin'”), partially very good (“I am a Lonesome Fugitive,” “John’s Blue,” “Pete’s Blue”), and partially fantastic (“Sweet Dreams,” “The Messiah Will Come Again”), and given that the very good-to-great songs are much longer than the mediocre space fillers, my overall impression of this album is extremely favourable despite its inconsistency and ill-advised song groupings.

Interestingly, all three vocal tracks are covers, whereas most of the instrumentals are originals. The bottom line is that I love hearing Roy Buchanan wail on his guitar, as few guitarists can play from the gut quite so convincingly, with such incredible emotive power, and the bulk of this album delivers just that.

December 28, 2013 Posted by | Roy Buchanan 1st Album | | Leave a comment