It is rare that musical performers release a superlative live recording, one that meets or exceeds the original studio versions of their songs. Oh sure, record labels will spew out live albums with the regularity of an army camp with dysentery, but these recordings merely act as filler — a chance to gouge fans – in lieu of actual studio product. Think of these attempts as greatest hits compilations repackaged with crowd noise.
And if it is exceedingly uncommon for a performer to release a single, splendid live recording, then just imagine the rarified air, that intoxicating celestial ether, breathed by those few exemplary musicians or singers who actually managed more than one great live album: Johnny Cash, Miles Davis, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, and Louis Armstrong. Not the Beatles, Clapton, Pink Floyd, The Who, or Led Zeppelin can lay claim to more than one great live album (if any at all). But there is one other performer who should be accorded among the highest rank of live players, an orphan raised by his grandmother on a Mississippi plantation by the name of McKinley Morganfield, otherwise known to posterity as Muddy Waters.
When one speaks with audiophiles in regards to Muddy Waters’ live recordings, the landmark release At Newport 1960 is usually the first topic of conversation, and with good reason – it is a truly an important, historic recording; however, the dialogue eventually wends its way to Muddy “Mississippi” Waters Live (1979), a live session recorded during his late 70s “comeback.
You see, the early 1970s were not a good time for Muddy. In October 1969, he was involved in a severe car accident that left three others dead, and he was hospitalized for months. It took several more months to get the feeling back in his hands, forcing him into a period of semi-retirement that stretched over the next two years. But disaster struck again in 1973 when Water’s longtime wife Geneva died of cancer. To be frank, Muddy was never what one would call a monogamous man, having children from several different “outside” relationships, but he had remained remarkably faithful to Geneva, and her death was a devastating blow to the recovering Waters. His only notable appearance in the mid-70s was in 1976, when he performed alongside The Band in their farewell concert film The Last Waltz. But in 1977, Muddy Waters started a stellar relationship with Johnny Winter that would produce several award-winning albums and bring Waters back to musical prominence.
Winter, the heavily-tattooed albino slide-guitar master from Texas (how’s that for a description?), persuaded his label, Blue Sky Records, to sign Waters, and Winter would go on to produce and play on the final four albums of Muddy Waters’ storied career, three of which won Grammys: Hard Again, I’m Ready, and Muddy “Mississippi” Waters Live. When it was first released in 1979, the truncated Muddy “Mississippi” Waters Live only contained seven songs, but this egregious error in record label marketing was rectified when the album was re-released as a remastered two CD Legacy Edition in 2003, which puts Muddy Waters’ comeback live sessions in their proper context.
Had it been released separately, the strength of the songs on the second CD may well have won Muddy another Grammy, but that would have only compounded the shortsightedness of the record label. In retrospect, one wonders why several of the fine songs on the second CD weren’t included on the original release. Perhaps it is because Johnny Winter only appears on the first CD. Who knows?
In any case, the first CD of the Legacy Edition retains the songs from the 1979 release, but some important additions make for a grand, new listening experience for those who treasure the vinyl LP. For instance, the opening song, an incendiary version of “Mannish Boy”, is returned to its original live 6:06 minute-length including verses sung by Johnny Winter, with Muddy Waters egging him on and clearly delighted with the performance. In addition, the sound quality of the 2003 remaster is clearly superior to the 1979 LP. The blues harp pops with the warm, fuzzy distortion of an overdriven tube amp, the cymbals crash and the snare hisses as if you were in the room, and the piano tinkles and trembles with bluesy arpeggios. You can even hear Muddy complain that “somethin’s sharp” in an aside during the intro.
The standout tracks on the first CD are “Mannish Boy”, the sinewy, snaky slide of “Howling Wolf”, the deep-South stomp of “Baby Please Don’t Go”, and “Deep Down in Florida”, a nine minute-long swaggering stroll through the heart of the blues with excellent guitar, piano and harp solos.
The second CD is real charmer here, and veteran bluesman and longtime Waters’ bandmate Pinetop Perkins steals the show on several selections, but that is one of the reasons Muddy Waters’ blues is so grand. He had an uncanny ability to maintain a cohesive band of gifted artists for years: Perkins on piano, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith on drums, James Cotton or Jerry Portnoy on blues harp, Bob Margolin, Johnny Winter or Luther “Guitar” Ellison on guitars, Calvin “Fuzz” Jones on bass – a veritable who’s who of blues masters that Muddy allowed to jam and expand upon the songs they played. Unlike B.B. King, who often plays with nameless, faceless hired guns, the expansive Waters gives his band their due; thus, Muddy Waters’ concerts became legendary jam sessions, and Muddy “Mississippi” Waters Live, like At Newport 1960, are truly celebrations of the blues.
Waters offers a poignant elegy for his friend, the late T-Bone Walker, before launching into Walker’s “Stormy Monday Blues”, and Waters is in fine form on standards like “Trouble No More”, “Corrina, Corrina”, and Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man”. Muddy also offers a fierce “Champagne and Reefer”, a fun stomp through “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”, and the show-ending “Got My Mojo Working” certainly lives up to its title. Pinetop Perkins takes a turn crooning on one of the best versions of “Kansas City” ever recorded, and the piano wizard offers a rousing “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie”, perhaps the finest song on an extraordinary album.
Most of the blues greats are gone now or, like B.B. King, are so old they can barely stand (the venerable Pinetop Perkins is now a sprightly 97 years-old). Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Albert Collins, Willie Dixon, Albert King, Sonny Boy Williamson – they are all but faces on CD jewel cases, and their legacy is fading. After an inrush of reverential second-generation British and American bluesmen: Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Johnny Winter, Peter Green, Paul Butterfield, Rory Gallagher, and John Mayall – who were also great in their own right — the blues as an art form is dying. With the advent of rap, hip-hop, and electronica, there seems to be no apparent third or fourth generation musicians to take the place of the greats. I suppose it could be argued that there are less and less actual “musicians” of any stripe in the squalor and abject compositional poverty of the discordant wasteland that passes for music in the 21st century.
But before the blues passes into the realm of musical extinction, a dead 12-bar language phrased only by scholarly musicologists in the sterile confines of college conservatories, it would do us all well to savor the tart bite of albums such as Muddy “Mississippi” Waters Live. And give your kids a guitar or harmonica rather than a PS3 or Wii for their birthdays. Who knows, they may catch a spark that will relight the musical darkness.Powered by Sidelines