Muddy Waters turned 60 somewhere between 1973 and 1975 (his social security card says ’73; his gravestone ’75). His 50s had been a disappointing decade. He hadn’t had a single on the R&B charts since 1958. His discovery by the rock audience had resulted in larger audiences but weaker records. He was in danger of becoming a nostalgia act. But as evidenced by “Muddy Waters Rhythm & Blues Band,” Waters turned that around and made his 60s a far more productive time.
Filmed for German public television, the set finds Waters and his revamped road band playing with renewed vigor. The October 1976 performance for a festival audience in Dortmund took place just 27 days before Waters joined The Band for its “Last Waltz” concert at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. Waters’ rafter-rattling roar on “Mannish Boy” made it into the Martin Scorsese film of that show and alerted a broader audience that Waters had regained much of his former vitality. But the Dortmund crowd already knew that.
Waters’ fortunes hit bottom in 1973 when he had to fire longtime guitarist Sammy Lawhorn, a brilliant musician with a drinking problem. He rebuilt his band by hiring complementary guitarists: Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson, a blues veteran from Magic Sam’s band, and Bob Margolin, a young rock player. Pianist Joe Willie “Pinetop” Perkins had already replaced Otis Spann in 1969. The rhythm section of drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and bassist Calvin Jones was retained, and Sam Lay’s harmonica player Jerry Portnoy came aboard in 1974.
Amid this shakeup, The Band’s Levon Helm invited his hero to upstate New York to record the Grammy-winning “The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album.” Of all of Waters’ collaborations with rock musicians, this is the best, thanks to the relaxed swing established by Helm’s drumming and captured in audio verité by Henry Glover, who’d also produced James Brown and Hank Ballard at King Records. Helping out were Margolin, Perkins, The Band’s keyboardist Garth Hudson, harmonica star Paul Butterfield, jazz horn player Howard Johnson and “Louisiana Hayride” veteran Fred Carter.
Thanks to two wonderful remakes of Louis Jordan songs (“Caldonia” and “Let the Good Times Roll”), Waters rediscovered the jump-blues hop of his childhood, a laid-back groove that fit his ailing body and restless mind. He carried that over to his “Last Waltz” rendition of “Caldonia,” his remarkable string of albums with producer-guitarist Johnny Winter between 1977 and 1981, and to his shows with his regular road band.
Waters plays a seductive slide intro on his red-and-white Telecaster guitar and then gives words to that come-on by slyly purring, “I’ve been howling around your door.”
At Dortmund, the aging Waters half-stands, half-leans against a barstool in a café-au-lait suit, a modest Afro and a pencil mustache. He opens with a typical Chicago blues stomper, “Soon Forgotten,” but seems more comfortable with the slower “Howlin’ Wolf Blues,” an adaptation of a Lightnin’ Hopkins tune from the ‘40s. Waters plays a seductive slide intro on his red-and-white Telecaster guitar and then gives words to that come-on by slyly purring, “I’ve been howling around your door.”
On Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man,” where he once argued strenuously for his sexual prowess, now he confidently reminds us of it. The short festival set reaches its high point with “Long Distance Call,” one of Waters’ greatest compositions. Another simmering slide intro sets the stage for this story of a traveling musician calling home to make sure his woman’s OK. Only in the last verse does the narrator realize he’s been betrayed: “The party said, ‘Another mule kickin’ in your stall.’” Waters and the band both register this shocking news with a dramatic climax. The multiple cameras manipulated by director Ewald Burike convey this especially well.
Waters returns to the stage for his traditional encore, “Got My Mojo Working,” an uptempo, barking song of frustration when his magic tricks don’t work on one particular woman. Waters brings out his former harmonica player Junior Wells, who blows a fierce solo and sings a verse. The band closes with another instrumental and Waters shuffles offstage, his unexpected career revival well underway.