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Review: Guitar Shorty proves he’s twice the musician of men half his age

In a word: Wow.

Deals don’t get realer than Guitar Shorty. His midday set on the main stage on the second day the Bayfront Blues Festival was about as good as it gets, and, when his age is brought into the equation – he’s 74, for crying out loud – his feats of guitar wizardry become even more impressive.

Anyone walking into the park during the latter half of Shorty’s set would have seen a band on stage, vamping away on a simple blues progression while an unseen lead guitarist played fast, clean, emotive, expressive lines. Looking into the crowd for answers, they would have noticed heads turned to a small area right among the revelers. There, a black cowboy hat slowly was making its way to the stage. There was Shorty, playing his guitar wirelessly, walking through the crowd, bringing his blues directly to them.

When he finally moseyed back on stage, he’d been soloing for about 10 minutes. His band, made up of salt-of-the-earth, no-frills dudes who back him with just the right mix of tight and loose, hit all their subtle cues well, and they improvised underneath the boss with flair. The keyboardist played a real B-3 and had a big Leslie speaker in a wooden cabinet. The bassist looked like a postwar Vietnam veteran, all poofy hair and headband. They had chemistry together.

As the tune came to a close, Shorty spoke. His voice was like cracked honey. He said the next song was one his deceased brother-in-law would have wanted him to play, and he wanted to play it, too. And then he slid into a version of “Hey Joe” that would have curled Jimi Hendrix’s toes.

Oh, by the way, that dead brother-in-law? Jimi Hendrix. Guitar Shorty married his sister a long time ago.

See, now that’s about as authentic as you get, not only influencing Hendrix but marrying his sister. And the “Hey Joe” he played – it matched Hendrix’s own in intensity and inventiveness and soul. As the song unfurled, with Shorty’s killer vocal leading the way, he broke into a solo.

Over about five minutes or so, he wrung genius from his G&L strat, playing simple melodic lines, fast, Eric Johnson-esque lines, and pulling off huge, emotional bends. His bassist looked over at him with a huge grin as they played off of each other, exploring the music in real time.

After bringing the song back down for the last verse, Shorty kicked on the effects pedals, melting minds with great waves of delayed and phased sound. It got positively psychedelic. At the end of the song, the band left the stage, and Guitar Shorty stood alone, coaxing sheets of noise from his guitar. His brother-in-law would have been proud.

The crowd, which had already showered Shorty with applause at several key points, rose to its feet, leaving the comfort of lawn chairs to demand an encore. And Shorty gave it to them. He played the guitar with his rear end. He did the national anthem.

By any measure, the set was incredible, and Guitar Shorty and his band were so good, it was hard to believe. Most guitarists half his age couldn’t even dream of being so excellent, so real, so fun, and so authentic. Surely, bluesfest attendees who watched it all happen will remember it for years to come.

 Tony Bennett writes music reviews for the News Tribune.