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Beyond Skin Deep

Buddy Guy sings praise of new era in America

Who: Buddy Guy (opening act Lindsay Ell)

Where: Royal Theatre

When: Monday, 7:30 p.m. (doors open 6:30 p.m.)

Tickets: $49.50, $39.50 (tel. 250 386-6121)

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Bluesman Buddy Guy's sole regret is that he was not back home in Chicago to celebrate Barack Obama's historic election win.

"A day like this, it's something a lot of us never dreamed of," said the 72-year-old singer/guitarist, a seminal influence on such rock heroes as Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton.

"I thought I was gonna cry. I thought about my brother [guitarist Phil Guy] who passed away three months ago. My parents. We ain't never dreamed of a day like this," Guy said yesterday morning from Spokane.

The election of a fellow African-American as U.S. president is an especially sweet victory for Guy. The title song of his 2008 disc, Skin Deep, tackles the subject of racism in America head-on. Guy -- who recorded for the legendary Chess label in the early '60s when Jim Crow laws divided the U.S. -- sings about being called "boy" by his Louisiana boss. The song continues: "I knew he had a good heart but he just didn't understand/That I need to be treated just like another man."

A globally acclaimed guitarist who has won five Grammys, Guy was born to poor sharecroppers working a plantation in tiny Lettsworth, La. He recalled that, as a youngster, he used to play all day with a white playmate. His friend's parents ended the friendship after the children became older.

"When he got to be 12, 13, that's when they came up and said, 'You all can't play no more.' We both cried because we didn't understand what the hell they was talking about."

Half a century later, Guy keeps in touch with his childhood friend, still living in Louisiana. The last time they met, Guy proudly presented him with a copy of Skin Deep.

This collection of original tunes ranges from the wild electric-guitar outings that are Guy's trademark to raw-boned country blues. The disc includes contributions from celebrity guests: Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Eric Clapton and Robert Randolph. But rather than sounding like a gratuitously star-studded album, Skin Deep works as a cohesive whole.

Like many poor black children, Guy's first guitar was homemade -- constructed from a pesticide can and strings snitched from a wire screen door. By 1957, he had become a proficient electric guitarist. That year he hopped a train to Chicago, armed with a Fender Stratocaster decorated with polka dots -- another Guy trademark.

Guy was often used as a sideman on Chess recordings for the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Little Walter. Yet as the 1960s waned, so did his career.

A comeback occurred after one of Guy's disciples, Eric Clapton, invited him to play a blues concert at the Royal Albert Hall. By the 1990s the guitarist was back in the limelight, earning three Grammy Awards for best contemporary blues album by the decade's first half.

Aside from the pure skill of his guitar playing, Guy's pioneering use of feedback and distortion influenced countless blues-rock musicians. Clapton once said Guy is "to me what Elvis was for others." His fans are a who's who of rock guitar: Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.

Guy's also known as a theatrical performer, often inviting audience members on stage to strum while he manipulates his guitar frets or strolling through the crowd as he solos.

Seven years past the traditional age of retirement, Guy says he still loves playing the blues.

The only thing that distresses him today is the homogenization of radio programming. "I used to listen to the radio all day," he said. "Now I don't even turn on the f---ing radio any more, because I'm not gonna hear what I'd like to hear. Which is a good spiritual or good Muddy Waters or a good Howlin' Wolf or good Count Basie."

achamberlain@tc.canwest.com