Muddy Waters

July 13, 2006

If you love the blues—in its original, primal, raw and uncompromising form—it doesn’t get any better than watching Muddy Waters work his mojo with his top-notch bands. Classic Concerts offers more than an hour-and-a-half of previously unreleased footage of Waters performing at three festivals: the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960, the Copenhagen Jazz Festival in 1968, and the Molde, Norway, Jazz Festival in 1977. Because this collection documents a 17-year span of his illustrious career, we get to track the evolution of his music over time, including his band personnel, his guitars and slide tone, and his interpretations of such classics as “(I’m Your) Hoochie Coochie Man” and “Got My Mojo Working,” which he performs in all three shows.

Shot in grainy black-and-white film in an outdoor setting, the 1960 Newport concert captures Waters at the start of his nascent festival career, so it reveals how he and his band (which includes the immortal Otis Spann on piano and James Cotton on harp) must have sounded in the steamy Chicago clubs where they forged this brand of electric blues in the late ’40s and early ’50s. Attired in suits, the chief and his sharp-dressed, swaying cohorts lay down a deep blues groove that must have sounded radical at the time, especially to those attuned to folk and jazz. We see the integrated crowd go wild with appreciation and Waters responds accordingly. Little Richard and Chuck Berry may be the fathers of rock and roll, but when it comes to creating the prototype of a pulsing electric ensemble, this is it. Plucking a capoed, blonde ’57 Tele with his bare fingertips, Waters leads his outfit through five swinging tunes, egged on by the raucous crowd.

The 1968 Copenhagen show boasts beautifully crisp black-and-white footage with the depth and detail of a fine-art photograph, as well as equally detailed audio. Seated in a concert hall, this Danish audience is much more sedate, but Waters’ band swings relentlessly nonetheless. Wielding his rare single-coil model Guild Thunderbird (the band’s other two guitarists and bassist are also equipped with Guild axes) and sporting a thumbpick and index fingerpick, Waters cruises through eight classics—including his signature “Long Distance Call”—accompanied by another crack band steered by Otis Spann. Waters’ slide sounds fat and sassy, and Luther “Snake Boy” Johnson backs his boss with biting lead licks.

The final 1977 concert in Molde, Norway, is filmed in color, and has the richest sonics of the lot. Sitting to play his ’57 Tele (now painted red and equipped with a rosewood-on-maple neck), Waters leads the band with the relaxed, confident demeanor of an elder statesman. This classic lineup, which by now had been gigging as a unit for three years, features Pinetop Perkins on piano, and guitarists Bob Margolin and Luther “Guitar” Johnson, both armed with Strats. When Johnson solos, his supple, gracefully sculpted lines evoke both Kenny Burrell and B.B. King. As bonus material, Classic Concerts includes two interviews with Waters (taped in 1972 and 1977) and a band performance recorded in ’77 in London. Insightful liner notes by Margolin round out this magnificent production. Hip-o/Reelin’ in the Years.

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