Muddy Waters - guitar, vocals; Otis Spann - piano; Paul Oscher - harmonica; James 'Pee Wee' Madison - guitar; Luther 'Georgia Boy' Johnson - guitar; Little Sonny Wimberley - bass; S.P. Leary - drums
The oldest federal cultural institution in the United States, the Library of Congress, contains much of the pioneering research and documentation that exists on traditional American music. Largely responsible for this was the Lomax family. In 1933 Thomas Edison's widow provided John Lomax with an Edison cylinder recorder so that he could create firsthand documentation of rural traditional music in America. In the process of cataloging and preserving this music, the Lomax family began unearthing musical artists who would not only become as influential as the most popular artists of the day, but in many cases would change the sonic landscape of the nation.
A prime example occurred during the height of World War II, when Alan Lomax (son of John) ventured into the Deep South with a new state-of-the-art disc-cutting recorder mounted in the back of his father's Model T. Traveling to Clarksdale, Mississippi's Stoval Plantation in 1941 with this vintage mobile recording unit on board, Lomax conducted the first field recordings and interviews with McKinley Morganfield, a sharecropper and budding blues musician better known as Muddy Waters. Waters was a direct disciple of Son House, a former Baptist preacher who conveyed a frightening intensity with his highly distinctive interpretation of Delta blues. Waters was an equally powerful singer and, like his primary influences, Son House and Robert Johnson, a highly emotive guitarist with a slashing slide technique.
In Alan Lomax's book, The Land Where Blues Began he conveys an insightful encapsulation of these early field recordings of Muddy Waters: "I remember thinking how low-key Morganfield was, grave even to the point of shyness, but I was bowled over by his artistry. There was nothing uncertain about his performances. He sang and played with such finesse, with such a mercurial and sensitive bond between voice and guitar, and he expressed so much tenderness in the way he handled his lyrics, that he went right beyond all his predecessors—Blind Lemon, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Son House, and Willie Brown." High praise indeed, but little did he know just how profound an influence this musician would soon have.
Within a few years, Muddy Waters would travel north to Chicago. It was here that he began playing electric guitar. This new amplified element contributed additional power to his razor-sharp style, which caught the attention of the Chess brothers, who initially recorded him in 1944. Although those sessions would prove fruitless, the Chess brothers pursued Waters again in 1948. This time Waters returned to the slide guitar style of his initial field recordings for Lomax, but amplified and with a full band of handpicked musicians on board. Waters cut an astounding stream of soon-to-be blues standards including "I Can't Be Satisfied," a raw, uncut Delta blues based on "I Be's Troubled" from his plantation recordings for Lomax. Leonard Chess had doubts about the sessions, but on the day of release, "I Can't Be Satisfied" sold out of its first pressing and surpassed all expectations, effectively launching Muddy Waters' career as a recording artist.
Over the course of the next decade, Waters would revolutionize and revitalize the Chicago blues scene. His prowess on electric guitar, slide technique, commanding vocals, and evocative songwriting introduced a big city feel into his unique brand of Delta blues. These innovations had a profound effect on nearly every bluesman that followed. Indeed, during the next two decades, Waters served to mentor and launch the careers of many prominent blues musicians, many of whom became bandleaders in the years to come. As a bandleader himself, Waters established the ensemble sound and style of Chicago electric blues, and this format (electric guitar/bass/piano/drums and usually the greatest of harmonica players) served as a basic blueprint for rock music in the 1960s and beyond.
This 1969 Newport Folk Festival set captures Muddy Waters in the midst of his most experimental era. He had recently explored psychedelia on the controversial Electric Mud album and was soon to record the now legendary Fathers And Sons album, both of which featured younger disciple musicians. However, what makes this high profile Newport gig so compelling is that Waters is not performing with those younger musicians, but rather with one of his most revered bands ever. Boasting the likes of pianist Otis Spann, the dual guitars of Pee Wee Madison and Luther Johnson, and relative newcomer Paul Oscher on harmonica, this band's front line is second to none. Along with the rhythm section of bass player Sonny Wimberly (who is extremely well recorded here, with a fat, clearly defined sound throughout) and drummer S.P. Leary, this band packs a powerful punch.
Headlining the Friday evening blues program, Waters' performance immediately followed an appearance by his mentor, Son House (also available at Wolfgang's). The sequencing of these two acts gave the end of this evening's programming a sense of musical progression. Waters and his band, through the manner in which they play, convey both a sense of tradition and a look into the future.
The set kicks off with this legendary band warming up with a soulful rendition of Jimmy Smith's 1960 hit instrumental, "Back at the Chicken Shack," after which Muddy Waters makes his entrance with a rousing version of Willie Dixon's "Hoochie Coochie Man." A tune also featured at Waters' groundbreaking 1960 Newport appearance nearly a decade before, this performance conveys the influence of modern rock guitarists like Peter Green and Eric Clapton beginning to permeate the band's sound. Not only are guitarists Johnson and Madison employing a significantly more aggressive attack and tone than just a year prior, but the presence of processing gear, particularly the use of wah-wah pedal, clearly indicates an acknowledgement and embracement of the changing tides.
A slow burning, slide guitar fueled "Long Distance Call" is next. In addition to Waters' excellent performance, this song features truly outstanding piano work from Spann, while blues harpist Paul Oscher sounds like Little Walter reincarnated. The "Baby, Please Don't Go" which follows features an unusually snaky groove and the call-and-response that develops between the slide guitar and the band is quite captivating. Both are performed with the authority of master blues musicians in their prime.
Perhaps the two finest performances of this set surface in the middle, beginning with the smoldering laid back groove of "She's Nineteen Years Old." This not only finds Waters in great, menacing form, but features wonderfully focused interplay between the guitarists and Oscher belting out another particularly sweet blues harp solo. An insistent "Mannish Boy" follows, with another call-and-response developing. This is such a strong performance that it draws the Newport audience in, with shouts of "Yeah!" clearly heard from the crowd and the band every time Waters growls out "I'm A Man!" This spontaneous interaction will continue to build during the set closer - a high energy, piano-driven "Got My Mojo Working." Here Waters and band skillfully work the Newport audience into a frenzy. This will be of particular interest to the countless disciples of pianist Otis Spann, who not only plays exceptionally and forcefully throughout, but who is clearly propelling the entire band here. With the curfew rapidly approaching, Waters exits the stage to rousing applause. Meanwhile, the band (and harmonica player Oscher in particular) blast through a quick reprise of "Got My Mojo Working" which then surprisingly segues into an instrumental of Cream's classic "Sunshine Of Your Love" to end the night.
Waters cut an astounding stream of blues standards over the years and this set includes many of the key songs that established him as a founding figure of electric blues. This tight, muscular band brings beauty and majesty to these performances, but it is Muddy Waters himself who simply commands one's attention. The surprising end to the set (the "Mojo" reprise segueing into "Sunshine Of Your Love") serves multiple purposes. This band makes it clear that the sound created by modern rock groups like Cream originated in the amplified blues that Waters and these musicians pioneered, but the group also conveys an acceptance and respect for these younger musicians who were now carrying Waters' root sound into the future.
-Written by Alan Bershaw