Listening: Buddy Whittington

by James M. Potter

Buddy Whittington and Band, The Haven Club, 28/04/14

It’s not often these days that I get to what I think of as a ‘proper gig’. Back room of a pub, a few rows of leather jacket-wearing, slightly grizzled bluesmen and women, and a three-piece band rocking it. I was fortunate therefore to get a dose of all this last Monday.

Buddy Whittington isn’t the household name he probably should be. That he’s known is this country at all is down to his stint in the venerable institution that is John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. The Bluesbreakers, forerunners of the British blues invasion, were the band who introduced the world to a number of guitarists whose names are now legend – Peter Green, Mick Taylor, not to mention God himself, Eric Clapton. Whittington, as the most recent Bluesbreaker axe-merchant, is the heir apparent. And, as you’d expect, he’s pretty damn nifty.

I first saw him play when the BBC televised John Mayall’s 70th birthday concert, an all-star affair featuring many of the greats whose talents Mayall’s band had fostered. And I remember watching the big Texan school Clapton and the others in an epic rendition of Have You Heard. Don’t believe me? Check it out below.

Finger-picking! Volume knob twiddling! Clapton looking on trying not to panic (though that might be because of his horrid blue-sunburst guitar)! It’s worth watching the whole thing – there’s a fabulous Hammond solo from Tom Canning, and at the end, Mayall shouts ‘the blues does not get better than that!’ He’s not far wrong. But I digress.

A three-piece band can be a difficult thing to get right, inviting as it usually does comparisons with the legendary Cream, but we got a masterclass at the Haven. For his short run of UK dates, Buddy teamed up with Pete Stroud on bass and Darby Todd on drums, and the three of them played together with an easy familiarity that belied their relatively short time together. Stroud played light but busy, Todd precise and hard-hitting. And then there was Buddy, weaving rhythm and lead seamlessly together whilst killing it on vocals. The man’s got pipes, there’s no doubting, even if he was clearly suffering a little on Monday night. He mixed up terrific takes on some blues standards with a number of his own songs (and when I say mixed up, I mean blistering, lightning segues. So awesome). He’s a blues historicist, his songs chronicling his formative experiences of the genre (Back When The Beano Was Boss) and saluting the greats (Stevie Rave On) in warm, witty style, all underpinned by chewy guitar licks and funked-up blues grooves. It’s the sound of a man who knows blues inside out and loves it.

That love is reflected in his playing too. When you think of his Bluesbreaker predecessors, you tend to think of one thing they do really well – Mick Taylor on his slide, Clapton with that ringing tone. But Buddy’s repertoire of licks and his melodic, big-toned approach seem to have more variation, and his rhythm playing incorporates everything from rock ‘n’ roll to country chicken-picking.

So you should probably go and see him when he’s next in the country. For now though, his albums are on Spotify, or you can listen to that 70th Birthday Concert record over and over again like I do…