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Surprise

June 2015

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Various Artists
Muddy Waters 100
Raisin' Music Records

Muddy Waters 100

Independent record label Raisin' Music may  have given blues fans the best gift they'll receive all year with this tribute to Muddy Waters in the year of what would have been his 100th birthday. In addition to the 15 well-chosen covers by a large group of solid musicians, the disc is packaged in a mini-book containing an introduction from producer Larry Skoller,  extensive biography from noted music historian Robert Gordon, and a large array of vintage photographs of Muddy and his various entourages.

While this is in essence a "Various Artists" collection, it's really John Primer's show from start to finish. The former member of Magic Slim's Teardrops and long one of the finest Chicago bluesmen still on the scene today, Primer fronts the various backing ensembles, and handles (or shares) vocals and guitar on all 15 cuts.

If you're expecting exact note-by-note renditions of Muddy's songs, be prepared for a surprise. What makes this collection so significant is that Primer and the many other musicians involved in this project take Muddy's music in a lot of different and sometimes eye-opening directions. Considering Muddy himself was quite the genre-buster in his day, I think he's looking down and nodding his approval of the versions of his classics.

First up is a more primal, earthy version of "Got My Mojo Working," on which Primer kicks off the vocals before being joined by the powerful voice of Shemekia Copeland. With swampy guitar accompaniment from Bob Margolin and Billy Flynn and rather creative electronic percussion sounds from Kenny "Beedy Eyes" Smith, this version of Muddy's oft-covered signature tune will be unlike any you've heard before.

Derek Trucks joins the band to contribute eerie slide guitar on the dirge-like version of "Still A Fool," a song that will leave you haunted by its earthy yet sometimes psychedelic sound.

Bob Margolin's exquisite slide guitar playing provides the perfect compliment to Primer's rough-hewn vocals on one of Muddy's earliest recordings, "I Be's Troubled." At first sounding pretty close to Muddy'[s original, Blaise Barton's drum loop programming provides a unique beat behind the small ensemble. In case you're skeptical, yeah, it works.

The next number, "I'm Ready," features one of the last recordings made by the late Johnny Winter, who played slide guitar on this one just five weeks before he passed away. "I'm Ready" was always one of my favorite Muddy songs, and Primer, Winter, Margolin, Smith, Johnny Iguana (keyboards) and Felton Crews (bass) do it justice, especially with Winters' superb slide work.

"Mannish Boy" is next, featuring one of the smaller ensembles on the album, and sounds pretty much like you'd expect until Barton's drum loop programming kicks in. At first I wasn't sure if I liked this addition to a classic song, but the contemporary rhythm it provides made me appreciate what the producers and musicians were trying to do here --- honoring Muddy but also bringing something new to his music.

Another very early Muddy song, "Rosalie," brings in guest Steve Gibbons on fiddle, giving this 1942 number a similar sound to the original from The Son Sims Four (of which Muddy was a member). Margolin's acoustic guitar and Flynn's mandolin picking contribute to the string band sound of decades past. The Chicago-based Gibbons reminds us that the fiddle was once an integral part of the early blues sound.

According to the liner notes, "Why Don't You Live So God Can Use You" was the only gospel song ever recorded by Muddy, part of the 1942 Library of Congress field recordings orchestrated by Alan Lomax. This version features Vincent Bucher on harmonca and Leanne Faine on vocals, taking the listener on a stirring and emotional trip down to the riverside. This just might the most powerful number on this album. Lord, have mercy!

Going back to more of a straight Chicago blues, "Good News" welcomes the harmonica accompaniment of the legendary James Cotton along with fine guitar playing from Margolin. It's an upbeat blues shuffle showing that Mr. Cotton still deserves the title of "Mr. Superharp."

"Trouble No More" is another song taken into the 21st century with Barton's synth bass and drum loop programming, plus the rather unique inclusion of Tim Gant's clavichord. Special guest is Billy Branch, whose harmonica playing perfectly accentuates Primer's vocals. It's certainly different.

A stripped-down quartet of Primer, Matthew Skoller (harmonica), Flynn and Smith stay much closer to the original Chess Studio sound on "She Moves Me," which the liner notes point out that the original of this song was the first in which Little Walter plugged his harmonica into an amplifier. Skoller does a nice job on harp while Smith lays down a steady, slow beat on drums.

Branch returns on harmonica on the up-tempo "Can't Get No Grindin'," which is also highlighted by a torching organ solo from Iguana. Smith once again puts down a steady beat on drums, just has his father, Williie "Big Eyes" Smith, did on the 1972 original of this song.

Primer growls out the first lines of "Forty Days and Forty Nights," just like Muddy in 1956, giving the number its appropriate earthiness and almost frightening sound. Gary Clark Jr. joins the band to provide a snaky slide guitar solo in the middle of the song.

"Last Time I Fool Around With You" brings Keb' Mo' onboard to play slide guitar, with Iguana's piano playing and Barton's accompaniment on guiro and shekere adding to the effectiveness of this tune. (I had to look to Wikipedia to find out about the guiro and shekere --- both are percussion instruments, the former from Latin America and the latter from Africa).

Primer does some of his best vocal work on the blues shuffle  "I Feel So Good," a version that sticks pretty close to the original, with Cotton playing harmonica just like he did on Muddy's 1959 recording.

Closing this wonderful collection is a version of the 1948 classic, "Feel Like Going Home." We're now stripped down to a trio, just like Muddy was using in that period. Primer handles vocals and guitar, with Crews on bass and Smith on drums. What a great version of one of Muddy's finest recordings. It's an appropriate ending to this tribute to arguably the finest bluesman ever.

This is an essential purchase for any blues fan --- no doubt about it! Don't hesitate. Buy it the minute it's available.

--- Bill Mitchell

 

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