If in life the adage is "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," than the music biz corollary is "duplication means hot product." This is illustrated by the simultaneous release of the same Muddy Waters concert recordings on two different CD labels, an import and a domestic version.
It's interesting how much the context affects musical perception. In Muddy Waters latter days his bands were staffed by adequate but not particularly outstanding musicians who never equaled his earlier all-star aggregation featuring Little Walter, Otis Spann and Jimmy Rogers. Muddy had faded somewhat as well, following a serious car crash which put him on crutches for a spell, he was sitting down while performing. When he played guitar at all, it tended to be with the over-exaggerated wild tremolo sound he thought the white "psychedelic" audiences expected of him. Compared with his earlier brain-searing Chess singles his 70's overseas concert recordings were rather tame and lifeless affairs, only sometimes echoing his former glory. The budget priced 2 CD import gives a somewhat different perspective. Though the tracks here still don't match up to the original band's efforts, they're more interesting than they seemed at the time they were made--and they are a definite cut above the effects-laden bar-band blues rock that clutters up a lot of the current scene.
This collection is at first glance an attractive compilation, but on inspection becomes a real hodgepodge. Over half the material duplicates previously released cuts with not much definitive documentation on when and where the tracks originated. The whole of CD 1 comes from one of Muddys mid-70's late tours, the band features two white players, Jerry Portnoy on harp and Bob Margolin on guitar. The side starts with a harp-led instrumental called "Boogie Thang", which cooks nicely. Muddy steps forward with the standard "Going Down Slow", his own "Hoochie Coochie Man" and plays a rather hyper slide guitar on "Howling Wolf". Guitarist Luther Johnson takes over vocals for three cuts, including a true-to-the original version of Elmore James "Dust My Broom" with some nice slide from Margolin and Sonny Boy styled harp from Portnoy. But the real gems are a couple of way back numbers; "Walking Blues" which Muddy plays mostly solo, joined only by bass. His vocals hark back to the original 1950 recording. "Rollin' And Tumblin'" is also slide guitar driven, once again Muddy reaches back to his roots. The side ends with the obligatory "Got My Mojo Working", of course.
CD 2 is mostly made up of tracks from a November 1970 radio broadcast done in Stockholm, originally issued on Wolf-Black Bear label. That band featured Carey Bell on harp, pianist Pinetop Perkins, and guitarists Sammy Lawhorn and Peewee Madison. The six tracks were done before an audience, but do still suffer from a rather low energy level. Staples like "Blow Wind Blow," "Walking Through The Park," and "Trouble No More" get rather perfunctory readings. The band does no standout solo work, Muddy's vocals are okay but have no real drive or emotion. Matters aren't helped by the
slightly dull radio tape sound.
Then follow three tracks from another time and place, with George Harmonica Smith instead of Bell, which were recently released on the LOST TAPES Blind Pig CD. If you don't have it, you should--it's some prime live Muddy, from an October 1971 tour in the Northwest US. The ante is raised from the opening line of "Just To Be With You" where Muddy hums the riff to alert the
band. Muddy has some passion here and Smith plays with a nasty edge. "Long Distance Call" features Muddy on slide, thankfully with more slow-burn blues intensity than psychedelic flash. "Mannish Boy" has Muddy's patented power stop-chord stomp down to a tee.
The final three cuts are from a soundtrack to the documentary CHICAGO BLUES, (previously on a Red Lightning LP) filmed in the Windy City in 1970, backed by Buddy Guy and harpist Paul Oscher in a small club. These are the funkiest tracks of all; "She's Nineteen Years Old," a third version of "Hoochie Coochie Man" and a repeat of "Got My Mojo Working" all come close
to what it was like to see Muddy in his prime. Vocals are a bit distorted on the PA, but so what? The ambiance counts for more than the fidelity. Oscher contributes some driving and biting harp--these may well be his best recordings with Muddy.
The domestic version is a single CD, it duplicates cuts from the first CD above, as well as from the October '71 dates. Liner notes for both sets are by Neil Slaven--here they identify the source of the European concert as being Switzerland, April 1976. The harp instrumental is omitted here, as are two tracks with vocals by Johnson, also missing is a rather pedestrian take on "Stormy Monday." Two of the 1971 tracks dupe the import, five others are added--but they all come from the same source, the aforementioned Blind Pig release.
What does all this mean? For one thing, it demonstrates that recycling Muddy is a growing enterprise. All in all, these releases are a somewhat mixed bag. Not really essential Muddy, but worth having for the several tracks that catch fire--if they aren't already in your collection, in another form. And compared to what’s passing for blues these days, that 70's band sounds
pretty damn good after all.
This review is copyright © 2000 by Tony Glover, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.