There were times during Buddy Guy's appearance Monday at the Coach House when the club had the aura of an unruly high-school classroom. Here was Guy, a true champion of the blues, alternately shushing and cajoling his audience, lecturing, scolding and encouraging in a way that Jaime Escalante would find familiar.
Somewhere between all the shenanigans, Guy played and sang the blues. If this show was one of Guy's least satisfying, it was because it never got serious.
During the two hours he was on stage, the guitarist never seemed to really get down to business. Instead, he delivered musical moments in fits and starts. And somehow those crumbs were enough to satisfy those who paid good money to hear and see him.
The classroom antics started early as the audience persisted in loud voice to answer the familiar line "while you were slippin' out" with its response, "somebody else was slippin' in." Guy informed the crowd in no uncertain terms that he would tell them when and how to respond, yet the call-and-response high jinks continued throughout the performance.
While all that participation may have served to keep the audience focused on the stage, it broke the pace of Guy's set, giving it the feel of stop-and-go traffic. The guitarist contributed to the herky-jerky proceedings when he did his familiar bit acknowledging his influences, a list that extends from Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker to Marvin Gaye, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix.
Guy would play short quotes from songs by each of the musicians he mentioned, only to fall away midline. "I like to mess with you a little bit," he said coyly as he teased the audience with snatches of Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile" and Albert King's "I'll Play the Blues for You."
"I know you want to hear the blues," he said. "But I'm going to play what I want to play, just like I always have."
Strangely, after the teasing and admonishment Guy followed with Wilson Pickett's R & B warhorse "Mustang Sally." While snatches of Guy's instrumental and vocal brilliance came through, one couldn't help but wonder why he didn't finish King's anthem or the tantalizing few bars he played from Cream's "Strange Brew."
When Guy did get down to action, he was, as always, impressive. He worked at two dynamic levels: extremely loud and very soft. The quiet lines were the most revealing of his technique. The up-volume passages were most revealing of his soul as he developed a screaming cacophony that burrowed deeply into the listener's chest.
His vocals slipped and slid from spoken tones to an airy falsetto. Though he's no Aaron Neville, Guy did a credible job on "Feels Like Rain," a tune that provided a needed change from the upbeat numbers that surrounded it.
More often than not, Guy's singing came as little more than interlude between instrumental breaks, and the crowd's participation in such trademark numbers as "Hoochie-Coochie Man" interfered with any stylistic treatment that Guy attempted.
If Guy was less than serious, his trio--guitarist Scott Holt, bassist Greg Rzab and drummer Ray (Killer) Allison--stuck to business. In addition to a couple of solid, upbeat solo spots, Holt provided fine rhythm accompaniment that meshed particularly well with Rzab's ambitious, steely fingered bass lines. At times drummer Allison threatened to steal the show with a crisp, hard-hitting attack that was strongly inventive over the changes.
Slide guitarist Sonny Landreth opened the evening with his strongly personal style of play and a raft of original tunes that looked to Louisiana for rhythmic and lyrical inspiration. Despite the obvious zydeco influences, Landreth's tunes, including "South of I-10," "Creole Angel" and "Shootin' Moon," were obvious hybrids, combining the directness of rock beats with bayou flavor.
Landreth's guitar sound, extremely rich and varied, resulted from a balance of slide chords and thumb-picked, single-note phrases. Backed by keyboardist-accordionist Steve Conn, bassist David Ranson and drummer Steve Ebe, Landreth's set had all the good-time feel of a Mardi Gras party yet furnished many a strong musical moment based on the quality and originality of his guitar play.
Once the novelty of Landreth's sound wore off, it became apparent that he was casting about for something to say. As the set progressed, Landreth seemed to string together clever combinations of guitar lines rather than establish any narrative flow.
Maybe it was just an off night for the onetime John Hiatt guitarist. Though he may not have lived up to his guitar-god promise, his songwriting talents, also rich and varied, left a strong impression.
* Buddy Guy and Sonny Landreth play tonight at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana; 8 p.m. Sold out. (714) 957-0600.