Drinking Muddy Water
Andy Mussell explores the blues icon’s newly-reissued later-period flawed gems.
OK. So Muddy Waters was one of the greatest (if not the) bluesmen to ever sing it. We’re talking archetypal, here. But there’s nothing new about that; nor are Muddy’s last three studio albums underappreciated. How could they be? So, the question is: Why re-release them?
The easy (and probably best) answer is that’s what music labels do. The Legacy imprint has been, for a while now, going through the huge backlog of fantastic material available out there and putting it into reasonably priced collections suitable for everyone but diehard completists. This is awesome.
And in the case of these albums, it’s about time. Though they’ve been available on CD for a while, it’s been more or less as cassette versions on a different medium. Legacy put a skilled remasterer under a talented producer and hired Bob Margolin (one of the musicians who worked under Muddy on all three albums) as a consultant, and I doubt that they’ve been heard better since the day they were first mixed by the great Johnny Winter, whose work at the boards on all three albums has been otherwise left wisely untouched. Then they added a total of six unreleased tracks over the three albums, to make these reissues crucial for any of Mud’s fans.
Musically speaking, the second disc in the series, I’m Ready, is my favorite, followed by Hard Again, then King Bee, Muddy’s last studio recording, which was recorded in about three days and unfortunately shows the lack of effort that went into it. (Muddy was in poor health and Winters was forced to round out the tracks with a couple of out-takes from Hard Again sessions to finish the album.) Hard Again is the easiest album to get into, a triumphant, joyous return (after a long stretch of mediocre work) to the studio to make some blues that was there to chew bubblegum and kick ass – except they didn’t have any bubblegum. But of the three, it’s I’m Ready that is the true standout, a musical meeting of minds that spanned generations and styles and syncretically melded the whole into a thing that was greater than the sum of its parts.
Hard Again kicks off with “Mannish Boy.” It’s a fantastic version, and it’s impossible to imagine a better way to begin the album, which Muddy once said was titled literally (although he didn’t say it like that). It was also recorded in three days but, as Margolin explains in the liner notes, it was three days of exhilaration, not torment. Like the other albums, it was performed in a studio where it was easy to mix the takes into a near-recreation of a live show (except for the audience), as there was little separation between musicians and any accidental sound leaking into each others’ mikes. It’s hard for me to write about the album – every time I get started listening to it, that’s all I want to do. Anyway, some of the other standout tracks include “I Want to Be Loved,” “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” and “Crosseyed Cat.” But the album’s a barrel of fish. The bonus track on Hard Again, “Walking Through the Park,” was remixed (like all the bonus tracks) in an attempt to match the rest of the album, which was mostly successful, but the song’s noticeably more uptempo and lighter than the rest of the album anyway, which means there’s only so much you can do to keep it from sticking out. Probably the best overall testimonial I can give to the album is that it’s a powerful, confident work by a Blues Grandmaster heading an enthusiastic ensemble of talented musicians who had a lot of fun working under him.
Hot off its heels came I’m Ready. Margolin explains that the genesis of the album came when, during a conversation between himself and Jimmy Rogers, a guitarist who had played in Muddy’s original band in the ‘50s, Rogers remarked, “Any time [Muddy] wants to get together and play those old Blues like we used to, I’d love to do that again.” Muddy was interested too, so with Winters they brought Jimmy into the band. Margolin shifted to bass duty, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and “Pine Top” Perkins stayed on drums and piano, and they added Jerry Portnoy and Big Walter Horton on harp (i.e. harmonica). Horton was another Blues player from the old days who had jammed with Muddy and Jimmy and had a big tone and distinctive personality, but he was also an unpredictably hard drinker, explaining Portnoy’s presence as backup – although it turned out to be unnecessary.
Such a combination couldn’t help but end in a bona fide Blues bonanza. One track really sticks out, for me, and that’s “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” which is a virtual redux of Hard Again’s “Mannish Boy.” (The two songs, along with Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man,” have a long and intermingled history that started way back in 1955.) There are three previously unreleased tracks on I’m Ready. The first is an earlier version of the original final song on King Bee, “No Escape from the Blues.” Besides being about three times longer, the I’m Ready version is markedly more upbeat, smiling where the other sounds grimacing and resigned. “That’s Alright” is a back-and-forth duet between Muddy and Jimmy Rogers, for whom the tune was a trademark. (Rogers incidentally was a Blues legend in his own right.) The final track is a collaboration between Muddy and Margolin, which Margolin had written as an outlet for his grief as a relationship he was in was ending, and Muddy put his own spin on it as he finished the “Lonely Man Blues.”
As I’ve already mentioned, King Bee suffered from a short recording schedule caused by Muddy’s poor health, and Margolin explains in the liner notes that an additional financial conflict between Muddy and his manager on one side and the rest of the band on the other only made things worse. As the album starts, it’s not apparent though – Muddy sounds convincing when, on the title track, he sings “I’m a king bee, I can do it all night long”. If you listen close though, you can tell that the nearly three years between the recording of I’m Ready and King Bee must have been hard on the man. His voice sounds more fragile, and he seems to be leaning on, not inspiring, his supporting musicians. Three tracks from the Hard Again sessions, one previously unrecorded, fill out the King Bee re-release. “I Feel Like Going Home” is an acoustic number, with Muddy singing and Winters and Margolin on guitar, and “(My Eyes) Keep Me In Trouble” captures the fun and excitement of Hard Again, but the unreleased “Clouds In My Heart,” the final track on this release, is the one that makes it all worthwhile, a bittersweet, 7 and a half minute meditation on love and life and the Blues.
The other outtake on King Bee is “I Won’t Go On,” a remake of a song Muddy sang in the ‘50s, and it’s a good version, though a little rough. But like a lot of the tracks on King Bee, it features a vocalist who sounds run-down. Even so, the album is a fitting good-bye from a man who probably did more for the Blues than anyone who sang after the day he first put foot on stage with a guitar. Tracks on King Bee like “Sad Sad Day,” “Forever Lonely,” even the remake of “Deep Down in Florida” are, even for their flaws, still more powerful than work done by a lot of other people I can think of on their good days.
And anyway, I’ll fight anyone who says any great Blues track is perfect. Like anything else worth loving in life, it’s the flaws, the range of lows and highs that make it truly worthwhile. I’ll bet Mud knew that too.
Muddy Waters, Hard Again (9.5), I’m Ready (10.0), King Bee (8.5) (Sony/Legacy). Reviews by Andy Mussell.
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