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 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 Scorsese 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 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 favorable 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 features Roy Buchanan the guitarist at his blues wailing best.
Second Album (Polydor ‘73) Rating: B+
With the same backing band, The Snakestretchers, supporting him (except Don Payne replaced Pete Van Allen on bass), Buchanan more strictly sticks to the blues, largely ditching the country except on the last track, a pretty if unexciting rendition of “She Once Lived Here.” As a result, this album is more stylistically limited and one-dimensional than the previous one, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing as Roy sticks to his strengths. What I like about this album is that Roy’s guitar is even more dominant, and his playing is great as always. However, the album was also a bit of a rush job and the material is at times pedestrian. The blues format, with the accompaniment at times sounding akin to a small jazz combo (with co-musical leader Heintz again being his main foil on organ and piano), is a little too rigid; I think that Buchanan, like Johnny Winter and Peter Green, among others, generally benefited from branching out rather than sticking to straight blues. Fortunately, the playing here is powerful enough to make this album well worth hearing. Featuring five originals and three covers, and five instrumentals and three vocal tracks (one sung by Tilley), Second Album starts with “Filthy Teddy,” a fairly upbeat exercise in string bending on Roy’s patented 1953 Telecaster. Next up is a version of Erskine Hawkins’ “After Hours” that’s basically a slow blues albeit with plenty of fretboard fireworks, as Roy transcends 12-bar blues boredom due to the sheer magnificence of his playing. Man, Buchanan just had an incredible tone; he didn't use any effects, which maybe made him seem less original with the advancement of technology, but he still got the most unique sounds out of his guitar (he and admirer Jeff Beck are the absolute masters of that). Even better is “Five String Blues,” on which Roy’s guitar cries out in his most starkly raw and emotional manner, while Heintz is a standout on piano as well. “Thank You Lord” is a prayerful meditation that's pretty but comes and goes all too quickly, while “Treat Her Right,” a Roy Head cover, is a generic barroom rocker of the type that Roy probably played a million times during his many years playing the clubs. In such a setting perhaps this song would take off, but on record it’s pretty forgettable despite Roy's lashing guitar. Continuing, “I Won’t Tell You No Lies” is a highlight, with great wailing playing by Roy and moody organ and piano work by Heintz, while the self-explanatory “Tribute To Elmore James” is also fine if overly imitative. Finally, there’s the aforementioned countrified closer, with brings the curtain down on a very solid but too rarely truly inspired album that lacks the high points of Roy Buchanan, even if it's more consistent on a song-by-song basis.
That's What I Am Here For (Polydor ‘74) Rating: A
After the first two albums received critical plaudits but scant commercial success, Buchanan picked up a new band, though he was smart enough to keep Heintz. With drummer Robbie Magruder, bassist John Harrison, singer Billy Price, and Heintz backing him, and Jay Reich in the producer's chair, Roy adopted a harder-edged rock sound. Riff-based tracks such as "My Baby Says She's Gonna Leave Me," "Rodney's Song," and the title track are hooky and memorable, and are primary examples of this being a "blues ROCK" album, often with the emphasis on the latter. Which is fine by me, restraint is overrated; I'd rather hear Roy strut his stuff and show off, which he does throughout this album. There are still songs to attract the purist blues crowd, such as "Roy's Bluz," an emotionally naked "woman done me wrong" number with typically phenomenal playing from Roy and Heintz, and "Nephesh," a laid-back country blues number that provides a nice low-key closer. In direct contrast to the previous two albums, "Nephesh" is this album's lone instrumental, though most of these songs have extended instrumental sections. Price handles most of the singing duties, and despite an at times overly earnest delivery his blue-eyed soul voice capably gets the job done, with his best performances arguably coming on the slow, pleading ballad "Please Don't Turn Me Away" and my favorite track here, “Home Is Where I Lost Her.” This song is atypical in that it’s in a bit of a country rock vein rather than his customary bluesy style (it reminds me a little bit of the Marshall Tucker Band’s “Heard It In A Love Song,” another track that I absolutely adore), but it has a great melody and an affecting vocal. Best of all, Buchanan's solo and then closing leads/solo are really astounding, some of the greatest stuff I've ever heard, really. Buchanan nails the emotion of total abject sorrow so completely that I 'd venture that even the most stonehearted among you can't help but be greatly moved by this performance. This is a song of hopeless loss, pure and simple, but at least "Voices," a simple, fun, catchy pop song written by Heintz, adds a little levity while also underscoring the varied nature of the album. Also of note is a version of "Hey Joe," which had long been a staple of Roy's live repertoire (like most guitarists Roy was a big admirer of Jimi Hendrix). This version is very slow, with almost spoken word-like vocals, but Roy does not disappoint on guitar either here or anywhere else on what is by far his most consistent album to date. Really, I'd say that every song here, most of which are band originals, has at least one stunning guitar moment at some point, and his tough, hard rocking backing band provides a more full-bodied sound than previously. Also interesting is the way Roy meshes southern rock (returning the favor, several subsequent Lynyrd Skynyrd songs channeled Buchanan's leads) into a more expansive and increasingly eclectic sound, which not everybody appreciated at the time (Rolling Stone in particular wrote a scathing review of the album). But though it is rarely touted as such, That's What I am Here For is not only Roy Buchanan's best studio album, but it's one of my favorite blues rock albums, period.
In the Beginning (Polydor ’74) Rating: B
By now Polydor was getting frustrated; they envisioned Roy as a "rock star" a la Eric Clapton (who looked more like a star and who could sing, remember), and this album was their compromised attempt to get him a hit record. It didn't work, of course, and the result was Roy's weakest album thus far. Not only that, but Polydor's decision to use studio musicians instead of his road band basically broke up the band who had served as such worthy foils on That's What I am Here For, though at least bassist John Harrison stuck around. Unsympathetically overproduced by Ed Freeman (this would become an unfortunate theme of Roy's next few studio albums), who had worked on Gregg Allman's Laid Back album, In The Beginning, which contains 8 songs clocking in at a mere 31 minutes (original material was hard to come by this time around), is more r&b-based than previous albums, with the Tower Of Power horn section and female backing vocalists featured prominently. Roy's guitar playing is also featured of course and is typically strong, but this album was a conscious attempt to scale back after the co-called “overplaying” of the previous album. "Rescue Me" (p.s. the original by Fontella Bass gets my vote as the greatest non-Motown Motown-like song) and "CC Rider" (Mitch Ryder's was definitive) were unimaginative song choices and are illustrative of the misguided nature of much of the album. More enjoyable is "I'm A Ram," which delivered Southern soul in a style similar to Al Green (unsurprisingly since he co-wrote and recorded it) except with Roy letting loose on guitar. Michael Bloomfield/Nick Gravenites' "You’re Killing My Love" has a nice groove to it, and there’s a real spark to Roy’s playing on this lively track, while "She Can’t Say No," co-written by Roy with handpicked singer Bill Sheffield, is more blues-based and is another good track because of Roy’s expressive playing. Unsurprisingly, the best songs here, namely "In the Beginning," "Country Preacher" (written by Joe Zawinul and popularized by Cannonball Adderley), and "Wayfaring Pilgrim," are slower, moodier, more sensitively rendered instrumentals that are more in tune to Roy's strengths, though none quite scale the heights of "Sweet Dreams" or "Messiah," either. All in all, though the studio musicians are competent and Roy's playing is always worth hearing, In The Beginning was a missed opportunity because it didn't present the proper settings for Roy's talents to shine and it wasn't the breakthrough hit that Polydor sought. Unsurprisingly, this would be Roy's last studio album for Polydor before moving on to Atlantic, where manager Jay Reich hoped to pair Roy with legendary producer Tom Dowd in the hopes of taking his art to the next level.
Live Stock (Polydor ’75) Rating: A-
Before moving on to Atlantic, however, Polydor released this contractual obligation live album, which fittingly was one of his best albums. Roy Buchanan was always a live performer first and foremost, after all, and this concert, captured at Town Hall in New York City on November 27, 1974, sees him and his new band (Price, Harrison, keyboardist Malcolm Lukens, drummer/singer Ron "Byrd" Foster) in their element. The problem with this album is its set list, which could've been much better (no "Messiah" or "Sweet Dreams," for starters), and its brevity (35 minutes), the latter especially inexcusable given the excellent bluesy version of Neil Young's "Down By The River" that originated from this show but only officially surfaced much later on Sweet Dreams: The Anthology (at the very least this song should've been added as a bonus track on a reissue at some point). The album starts with a cover of Roy Milton's "Reelin' and Rockin'," and though it's a good time rock 'n' roll number with an impressive keyboard solo (like Heintz before him, the also talented Lukens would serve as the primary soloist aside from Buchanan), it's hard for me to get too excited about it. The next song, a cover of Junior Walker's "Hot Cha," features impeccable playing but is a tad too restrained, and it's on the next song, a cover of Bobby "Blue" Bland's "Further On Up The Road" (also a favorite of Eric Clapton and Freddie King), that the album truly takes off. Again Lukens shines on this lively boogie rocker, but as expected it is Roy who steals the show as he unleashes a cascade of otherworldly notes from his trusted Telecaster. "Roy's Blues" is another highlight, this one with different lyrics than the original, though as usual it's what Roy says with his ever-mournful guitar that really matters. "Can I Change My Mind" has an extremely inviting and quite hooky melody, with tasty low-key guitar and keyboards that hit the spot as well, while a tight, funky rendition of "I'm a Ram" is a big improvement on the studio version, in large part because Roy's not being drowned out by horns and backing singers. The last song, a slow burning Roy original titled "I'm Evil," is a mighty fine finale that features Roy's speak-singing and some supremely soulful blues guitar. So, although the less than exemplary set list and skimpy running time make Live Stock far less than the definitive live album it could've been, the playing is predictably great and as such this enjoyable live album is still a solid A- despite its blown opportunities.
A Street Called Straight (Atlantic ’76) Rating: B+
The album title here alludes to Roy's troubled history with drugs and booze, which would only get worse in later years and which played a major role in his underachievement on record (to be clear, Roy made many good and even very good studio albums, but few that truly did justice to his talent). As previously mentioned, the other problems Roy continually had were two-fold. One, Roy never practiced or rehearsed and was frankly admittedly lazy, and he exasperated the people he worked with by being totally unprepared for the recording sessions; it was all the producers could do to get a full album's worth of material out of him. Of course, most of the producers Roy worked with in the mid-'70s didn't quite "get" him, either, including Arif Mardin, who produced this album as apparently Tom Dowd was busy elsewhere. Like Ed Freeman before him, Mardin had good intentions but, perhaps pressured by his bosses, he wanted a hit out of his charge, and Roy was all too willing to let the producer call the shots; surely he should've taken a stand against "Keep What You Got," an actual disco number that sticks out here like a sore thumb, even though Roy really wails on it. Still, for all its faults the bulk of this album is surprisingly good, as was often the case with Roy, but it also could've been better, which was also often the case with Roy. The playing is always incredible, but the vocals (Price was gone now) and arrangements are another story. The fact that Roy decided to remake "The Messiah Will Come Again" showed that new material again wasn't easy to come by (though to his credit I'll note that Roy did write or co-write 9 out of the 11 songs here), and though this shorter version is predictably impressive, it isn't exactly necessary, either (I prefer the rawer original). Among the other highlights (yes, "Messiah" will always be a highlight, even an unnecessary version of it) are "Running Out," which gets the album off to a fine start as Roy coaxes otherworldly sounds out of his axe as his band grooves along. "Good God Have Mercy" and "Caruso," the former written by "Hey Joe" writer Billy Roberts especially for new friend Buchanan, are keepers as well, both containing a smoky, laid-back J.J. Cale-ish vibe. "My Friend Jeff," a funky, fusion-type of instrumental effort, is a payback tribute to Jeff Beck, whose astounding "'Cause We've Ended As Lovers" had been dedicated to Buchanan on his groundbreaking Blow By Blow album (p.s. I like this song but let's face it, clavinets sounded fresh in 1976, but today not so much!). Also notable is a cover of Jimi Hendrix's "If Six Was Nine," another fusion-y effort that features tasteful and tasty playing; ironically, "Guitar Cadenza," a strange, moody instrumental, conjures the ghost of Hendrix far more than the actual Hendrix cover. "I Still Think About Ida Mae," a uniquely ethereal album closer, also stands out, but several of this album's songs, though perfectly pleasant in their own mostly laid-back way, don't really stay with you, as Mardin too often steers Roy (who sings more often than he should) towards overproduced, middle-of-the-road mediocrity, not unlike Eric Clapton who I suppose was still the career model even at his new label. So, the label switch didn't really change things much, as A Street Called Straight was another hit-and-miss affair that, while largely enjoyable and a definite improvement on In The Beginning, too often failed to show Roy or his road band (who at least played on the album this time albeit alongside many other session musicians) at their very best.
Loading Zone (Atlantic ’77) Rating: B
Based on this album title and cover obviously Roy gave up going straight, but if anything this album is too sterile and lacking in recklessness. Produced by fusion bass maestro Stanley Clarke (best known for his work with Return To Forever), this album is not without its strong moments, starting with "The Heat Of Battle," a hard rocking fusion instrumental that would seem ill fitting for this roots rock/blues-based musician but which is spectacular just the same. Man, Roy and Stanley really wail on this track, which shows that Roy could shred like John McLaughlin or Steve Morse when called to do so; his guitar is a real force of nature on this one. Though hardly a masterpiece, I like "The Circle" as well, though the backing vocals on this intense pop rocker do seem a bit out of place. The interestingly titled "Adventures Of Brer Rabbit and Tar Baby" is a nice brief low-key instrumental, and "Ramon's Blues" is another prototypically good 12-bar blues performance, with Steve Cropper guesting on guitar. Cropper also appears on, appropriately enough, a cover of Booker T. & The MG's "Green Onions" that's much faster (supposedly Clarke sped up the tapes) and heavier than the original, with more guitars and less keyboards. This version is almost hard rock at times, and it has some smokin' guitar as you'd expect, but it lacks the smoky atmospherics of the classic original (which I far prefer) and is too long for its own good. "Done Your Daddy Dirty" is another good gritty rocker, but other tracks such as "Hidden," "Judy," and especially the weak album closer "Your Love" lack grit and seem out of place, making Loading Zone even more hit-and-miss than most Buchanan albums. Really, After all, Narada Michael Walden (who wrote the last two mentioned tracks, the first of which springs to life in its mid-section at least) is an ill-fitting choice for a Buchanan collaborator (though given his former connection to the Mahavishnu Orchestra, I guess it somewhat makes sense), and part of the problem with this album is that there was again too much meddling in the creative process by Atlantic executives (who banished his road band except for Lukens for high priced session guys). For his part, like Freeman and Mardin before him, Clarke is too obtrusive, making me appreciate earlier producers like Pete Siegel who just tried to get Roy's essence down on tape without trying to make him something he's not. Anyway, despite its inconsistency this is still a solid album that at the very least contains one of his best songs ever ("The Heat Of Battle"), and given the strength of that song I wonder if maybe Buchanan should've just followed the Jeff Beck model of Blow By Blow and Wired; no vocals, just playing, which resulted in two major successes that remain fusion landmarks for him whereas Buchanan's largely forgotten work from that time is for hardcore enthusiasts only.
Live in Japan (Polydor ’78) Rating: A-
It seems only fitting that one of Roy's best albums was a live album that's never even been released in the United States, as Roy was doomed to a life of cult fandom and recognition without ever reaping the rewards of significant commercial success. Of course, part of this was due to his own self-destructive nature, but in any event this live album is a scorcher that shows Roy and his loyal road band (still Lukens, Harrison, and Foster) in fine form on an "on" night in a country that really appreciated what they had to give. I'd give this album the slight nod over Live Stock mostly due to the appearances of "Hey Joe" and "Sweet Dreams," though like the previous live album this one is too brief (around 46 minutes) for its own good, especially since again there was more material available that could've been used. The album starts with a stellar version of Booker T. & The MG's "Soul Dressing" (an improvement on "Green Onions") that's moody yet rocking, with keyboard and guitar solos and Harrison's bass prominent as well. "Sweet Honey Dew" delivers swinging mid-tempo rock n' roll with some good lashing guitar and moody keyboards including another solo spotlight, before "Hey Joe" slowly stretches out for 9+ minutes. Now, I really liked the flashier studio version, but I prefer this version for the "Shenandoah" reference and the explosive "Foxey Lady" coda; this performance is Roy Buchanan at his absolute best. Any song after that would be a letdown, and despite its admirable energy I really don't need to hear another version of Larry Williams' admittedly rocking "Slow Down." Much better is Earl King's "Lonely Days Lonely Nights," a soulful semi-ballad with a good Byrd vocal and attractive piano. "Blues Otani," a remake of an old Snakestretchers song called "Since You've Been Gone," is another in a long line of excellent extended (7:53) blues tracks, before an explosive "My Baby Says She's Gonna Leave Me" leads into an intimate, heart wrenching "Sweet Dreams." The main problem with this album is that it leaves you wanting more and makes you feel slightly unsatisfied as a result. Still, what is here is mostly excellent, and the album was a personal favorite of Roy's who felt that it captured what him and his band were all about. Note: Roy toured incessantly (band members came and went) and released several albums after this one, including a trio of studio albums for Alligator Records in the mid-'80s, but I feel that his best recorded output came in the '70s, on the albums reviewed on this page. The previously mentioned Sweet Dreams: The Anthology, a 2-cd set with most of the essentials and quite a few unreleased tracks as well, is a great starting point for the uninitiated (even if it omits my favorite Buchanan song, "Home Is Where I Lost Her") but is currently out-of-print. A true original (Gary Moore is the only guy I can think of who dared cover him, doing a great version of "Messiah" on his After the War album), Buchanan's life was tragically cut short when he was arrested for being drunk and disorderly and allegedly hung himself in jail. Fittingly given his enigmatic life, some have questioned whether he was really in fact the victim of police brutality and a subsequent cover up, but for all his shortcomings as a singer, songwriter, bandleader, and businessman, what can't be denied is that in life few people could make a guitar cry quite like Roy Buchanan.
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