In the spring of 2013, Eric Clapton rounded up his favorite guitar players and set them loose at Madison Square Garden. Clapton’s Crossroads Festival featured performances by six-string artists who you’d call legendary even if you’ve become (justifiably) allergic to the word: B.B. King, Keith Richards, Robbie Robertson, etc. Anyway, the biggest showoff in the whole shebang — and therefore the most indispensable artist at an event dedicated to excess — was one of the oldest musicians in the house. Pushing 80, Buddy Guy remains one of the most electrifying lead guitarists working in any genre of American music. Like many electric bluesmen, he learned to play in the Deep South and became famous for his skills after moving to Chicago. Yet at first, his playing was so flamboyant and outrageous that even electric blues enthusiasts blanched. It took years for the world to catch up to him — arguably, he didn’t truly get his due as an innovator and groundbreaker until 1991, when Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues, a comeback set, won him a Grammy award. Guy will be making jaws drop, as he always does, at the State Theatre in New Brunswick Wednesday night at 8, with Matt Andersen opening.
The Garden State has its own homegrown traditionalists, too. The Jim Hayes Band, an energetic blues outfit, was one of the highlights of last year’s Maplewoodstock festival. When Your Time Comes, the group’s 2011 album, reveals Hayes’ classic influences: John Lee Hooker, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits. The Hayes Band shares a Thursday night bill at Tierney’s Tavern in Montclair with Bellehouse, a Brooklyn-based folk-pop outfit that contains at least one Jersey-born member, and that has lately become a near-regular attraction in Essex County clubs.
Wednesday night, the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville hosts an artist who recently scored his first No. 1 album: the talented smoke-rapper Wiz Khalifa, former Bamboozle headliner and Pittsburgh’s best-known emcee. “We Dem Boyz,” a pop-rap record influenced by Drake, wasn’t quite the smash that “Black and Yellow” was, but it was still inescapable on hip-hop radio in early 2014. Despite his recent commercial success, Khalifa learned a hard lesson this year — it’s very tough to return to the freewheeling spontaneity of early mixtapes after signing with a major label. There’s still a large segment of Khalifa’s audience that believes the rapper did his best work before inking with Atlantic at the beginning of the decade. Blacc Hollywood, his latest album, is consistently entertaining, as all of his major label releases have been. But there’s a spark missing. Khalifa has never quite figured out how to export his quirky personality to his widescreen releases. Of course, there’s a larger segment of Khalifa’s audience that doesn’t care how his records sound as long as he keeps the clever rhymes about marijuana coming. He remains the most weed-fixated emcee in the history of mainstream rap, and he’s had some stiff competition in that category.
The Wrecking Ball Tour made Jake Clemons a star, but a funny sort of star. Clemons earned standing ovations for reproducing the sound and the spirit of his uncle’s saxophone solos. In so doing, he became the most famous channeler since Shirley MacLaine. He was embraced as the carrier of a legacy, and a refraction of the light cast by somebody else — and even if that somebody else was someone Clemons loved very much, there was a way in which his turn in the spotlight was strangely self-effacing. On his own, the younger Clemons isn’t even primarily a saxophone player. He’s a guitar-slinging singer-songwriter who draws more from the British tradition than he does from the American heartland rock associated with Bruce Springsteen. Until recently, he was more closely associated with New York City than he was with the Garden State.This Friday, Clemons makes a stand in a club that will forever be associated with the family name — the Stone Pony in Asbury Park. Showtime is 8 p.m., with The Dream Logic and End of Love opening.