Friday, July 3, 2009

July 3: Muddy Waters, "At Newport"

Artist: Muddy Waters
Album: At Newport
Year: 1960
Label: Chess

Finding amazing, complete albums from the 1940's and 1950's is especially difficult because most musicians were recorded for singles, or shared releases. Due to this, many artists who had been established for decades did not see an actual LP release until the late 1950's or 1960's. Though he had been performing live since the early 1940's and released a handful of successful singles, blues legend Muddy Waters (real name McKinley Morganfield) did not have a "record" until a "best of" collection in 1958. What sets Waters' sound apart has always been the way in which he incorporates the method of playing "microtones" with a traditional Delta blues style, and it is also what made his sound almost impossible to copy. Considered by most to be the "father" of the "Chicago blues" style, the work of Waters has influenced countless artists since, and he is also considered one of the greatest guitar players ever. Finally, in 1960, he became a household name with the release of his sensational live album (and in many ways, first "true" LP), At Newport.

Recorded live at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 3, 1960, and released just months later, the truth of the matter is, for an overwhelming majority of the world, Waters' At Newport was their first exposure to live blues performance. Nearly fifty years later, the performance is still stunning and an excellent introduction to both Waters' sound and style, as well as live blues in general. Yet, one must step back and realize the significance of the performance itself; that being a blues musician at a jazz festival. It is impossible to understate the impact that Waters' performance at the festival had on bringing the "jazz crowd" into the blues scene. The recording presents Muddy Waters at the top of his game, and the song selection is fantastic, presenting many of his "classics," as well as new material, including the first live performance of "I Got My Brand On You." The audio mix on At Newport is absolutely perfect, and the balance of all of the instruments gives the record as good a live representation as can be heard anywhere. While Waters is understandably at front and center, the quality of the recording is so good, that one can truly hear how essential each member of the band was to the overall sound and mood of the songs.

While Muddy Waters himself is an undeniable talent, the backing band he has with him for At Newport is so amazing, that they must too be recognized. Easily one of the greatest and most respected harmonica players in history, James Cotton worked with the likes of Big Mama Thorton, Led Zeppelin, Howlin' Wolf, Janis Joplin, and countless others, along with his time with Waters. From slow, crying riffs to lightning fast solos, there is nothing Cotton can't do, and while he is rarely equaled in talent, he is truly awe inspiring on At Newport. Many will argue that there has never been a finer Chicago pianist than Otis Spann. Aside from working with Muddy Waters, Spann played with musicians like Bo Diddley, Eric Clapton, and B.B. King among many other artists. Often giving the songs their "bounce," Spann's playing is second to none, and this chance to experience his live show is a gem in music history. Bringing a second guitar to the performance is guitar legend, Pat Hare. Known for his non-traditional rockabilly and purposefully distorted sounds, Hare laid much of the experimental groundwork that fellow legends like Ike Turner and Jimi Hendrix would follow and develop. Waters' longtime bassist, Andrew Stephenson (often credited as Andrew Stevenson) is on hand for At Newport, and he is, as always, in top form and perfectly rounds out the band. The band is absolutely on fire when they tear into the Preston Foster classic, "I've Got My Mojo Workin'." Though many artists have recorded the song since, once one experiences the live version featured on At Newport, it becomes clear that there has truly never been a better rendition in history.

At the center of this group of amazing musicians is the man himself, the one and only, Muddy Waters. From his moaning, singing guitar to his unmistakable vocal performance, there are truly few that can even be mentioned in the same breath as Waters. Waters' up-tempo, strong voice has always set him aside from the quieter, more laid back blues singers, and this is very much the reason Waters is considered to be the pinnacle of "Chicago style" blues. Constantly working the audience with his call and response lyrics as well as a more jovial spirit than many of his peers, Waters' shows and recordings are always a uniquely enjoyable musical experience. On At Newport, Waters shines on guitar as well, trading riffs and solos with Pat Hare, and the interplay between the two musicians is truly stunning. Lyrically, Waters sings as soulful and honest as any other blues master, yet his words always seem to have a bit of "tongue in cheek" to them. This may be, perhaps, due to the fact that many of his biggest hits (and in fact, EVERY song on At Newport) were written by other people. Many of Waters' most famous songs were written by Willie Dixon or the aforementioned Foster, yet members of Waters' band as well as Waters himself also contribute a number of songs to the overall Waters catalog. Whether it is "Tiger In Your Tank" or "Got My Mojo Workin'," it is clear that, while he is clearly performing blues music, he is also having a great deal of fun in doing so. Another notable performance here is the presence of the Dixon song, "Hoochie Coochie Man," which Waters made famous. From deep, slow blues to more swinging, upbeat blues, At Newport features everything that makes Muddy Waters the brilliant and timeless performer that he is, and the album presents him and his band in top form.

Many people, myself included, feel that the true measure of a musician is how they perform in a live setting. Without the comfort and "magic" of a studio session, musicians must rely on little other than their raw talent and personality. Muddy Waters' At Newport proves without a doubt that he has an overwhelming amount of both of these essential traits. A true "breakthrough" performance, his presence at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival can very much be seen as a turning point in music, as jazz fans received a phenomenal introduction to a new style of blues music. Though it didn't hurt that he was backed by a trio of the most accomplished and talented musicians in blues history, Waters' amazing personality and flawless musicianship catapults this album high atop the list of recorded classics. At Newport has been released a number of times over the decades, and the best version happens to be the 2001 release from MCA, which features a remastering that raises the level of bass work, as well as features four bonus tracks recorded in Chicago in June of 1960. While only scattered 45's exist from Muddy Waters pre-1960, At Newport quickly catches everyone up to what made him such a fantastic and revered musician. Waters and his band are absolutely unbelievable throughout the entire album, and the set closing performance of "I've Got My Mojo Workin'" is said to have had the audience LITERALLY dancing in the aisles. Perfectly capturing a landmark moment in music history, Muddy Waters' 1960 live release, At Newport, still stands as not only one of the most remarkable blues and live albums, but undoubtedly one of the most important and extraordinary recordings in the overall history of music.

Standout tracks: "I've Got My Brand On You," "Tiger In Your Tank," and "I've Got My Mojo Workin'."

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