Yahoo music series draws eclectic artists who get to play outside the box

NO RESTRAINTS: Buddy Guy’s recording session lasted for more than the allotted hour
NO RESTRAINTS: Buddy Guy’s recording session lasted for more than the allotted hour
(Kirk Saylin)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Musicians have learned to downscale their expectations for TV exposure these days. Those lucky enough to score any might get a song spotlighted in a TV show or commercial. If they make the cut for one of the late-night talk shows, it’s typically one song at the tail end of the hour.

That’s what put a kid-in-the-candy-store grin on veteran bluesman Buddy Guy’s face Tuesday night when he stepped on the Fox Studios soundstage in Century City. He was there to tape a live performance for the “Nissan Live Sets on Yahoo! Music” series, one of a growing number of Internet-based forums offering musicians, and their fans, a more generous chunk of time in the limelight.

“I’m like a baseball player,” the 72-year-old guitarist and singer from Louisiana said while relaxing in his dressing room after an afternoon rehearsal and sound check. “I like to get out there and play for as long as it takes. But you can’t do that on most television shows. I love to walk the floor and play -- this is the first time I’ve gotten the freedom to do a TV show that’s 100% Buddy Guy.”

Unexpected moments

Walk the floor he did -- and more. His performance, due to be posted on the Yahoo Music website sometime in October, ran well past the hour allotted for this series. He prowled the stage, then ventured out among fans who’d snagged the free tickets by replying to targeted e-mail invitations, which are sent to performers’ most ardent supporters.

Armed with a set list of eight songs, chosen in part by fans as part of the interactive aspect of the series, Guy essentially crumpled that list and tossed it aside toward the end of the performance as he, and the crowd, got swept up in the intensity of the moment.

Singing the fiery “Damn Right I Got the Blues,” Guy ran into the tiered risers, stopping in front of a preteen fan and grabbing the kid’s finger, which he used to pluck out a solo on his blond Fender Stratocaster. Then he interrupted that number to zigzag his way through bits of signature songs from several of his own heroes, including Albert King, O.V. Wright, Bill Withers, John Lee Hooker and Eric Clapton.

“I think we caught lightning tonight,” said Neal Weiss, the show’s executive producer. It was the kind of moment he hopes for, but can’t guarantee, after 44 installments with acts spanning the musical spectrum. Participants have included Weezer, the Offspring, Herbie Hancock, Tony Bennett, Moby, John Legend, Incubus, Snoop Dogg, Brian Wilson, Trisha Yearwood and Santana.

The goal, of course, is to drive more Internet users to Yahoo, just as AOL attempts to do with its “Sessions@AOL” live performance series. Each strives for an angle that will distinguish its content from the countless performance videos circulating on YouTube, artists’ websites and elsewhere.

AOL’s series zeros in on musicians and their songs; Yahoo emphasizes the interaction between performers and fans. Inevitably there is overlap among those performers: Alanis Morissette, Jewel, Sheryl Crow, Weezer and Kelly Clarkson have done both. Variety is a hallmark of these shows, since Yahoo and AOL’s parent sites cater to broad international audiences.

“The thing that gets me is how many surprises there are,” said Scott Moore, senior vice president of media for Yahoo. “When Snoop Dogg was on, I expected a rap show. But he brought a 20-person band. It was like a big band with rap and guest singers. Herbie Hancock played fresh off his Grammy win [for album of the year] and Joni Mitchell showed up. Weezer brought a bunch of toy instruments and drums and handed them out to everyone and let the whole audience sing and play along.”

Another key element of the Yahoo series, now in its second year, is a Q&A between fans and performer that typically comes midway through each set. Questions are vetted by the show’s producers, and they aren’t always voiced by the fans who submitted them. But the results can be wildly unpredictable.

At last week’s Brian Wilson taping (to be posted Sept. 1), a fan asked what he regretted most. Wilson responded straightforwardly with a laundry list of the drugs he’d used. “They messed with my brain,” he said, “so I regret that.”

Can’t get enough

When Guy was asked to cite the best solo he’d ever played, he turned the question back on the fan. “What’s the best love affair you ever had?” Guy shot back, the only way he could analogize the difficulty of the task set before him.

Mike Pinkham of Pasadena and Veronica Rodriguez of Sherman Oaks were first in line for seats, having arrived four hours ahead of the taping. Pinkham, like several others in the crowd, had last seen Guy just four days earlier at the Greek Theatre.

Neither had looked at any of the Yahoo! Music performances previously. But after scoring admission to Guy’s show, Rodriguez checked out a recently posted session with Los Lonely Boys. “It was pretty good,” she said. “I liked that they showed the whole performance.”

For Pinkham, the event was a simple case of too much is never enough for the true fan.

“It’s another chance to see Buddy Guy, and it’s free,” Pinkham said. “There’s nothing better than that.”