Muddy Waters - guitar, lead vocals; Pinetop Perkins - piano, vocals; Jerry Portnoy - harmonica; Luther Johnson - guitar, vocals; Bob Margolin - guitar, vocals; Calvin Jones - bass, vocals; Willie Smith - drums
With his loud amplified guitar and thunderous voice, Muddy Waters reigned over the Chicago blues scene during the 1950s. Waters' sound was steeped in Delta country blues and his use of microtones, in both his vocals and slide guitar playing, was utterly distinctive. His influence over a variety of musical genres, including blues, R & B, rock & roll, folk, jazz, and country, cannot be overestimated. Waters became the most popular bluesman in the world and led the most outstanding band, fueled in large part by Willie Dixon, one of the most prolific and successful blues songwriters of that era. After two decades of great popularity, Waters career was clearly in decline as the 1970s began. Although he continued recording, most notably in London, with many of the greatest rock musicians Britain had to offer, the results were less satisfying than his groundbreaking work of the 1950s. Enter Johnny Winter, who after playing high-energy rock & roll for several years, returned to his musical roots in 1977 and refocused on playing authentic blues. That same year Winter convinced his label to sign Waters, which was the beginning of a most fruitful partnership. Recorded in just two days with Winter in the producer's chair and former Waters' sideman, James Cotton blowing harp, Waters' comeback album, Hard Again was a return to his original Chicago sound. Its raw feel harkened back to Waters' Chess Records days, and the outstanding musicianship and intimate, good time vibe led to the album exceeding all expectations, earning Waters a Grammy in the process.
Bathing in the glow of such success, Waters assembled a crack touring outfit that included musicians from the Hard Again sessions and hit the road again. The group included several veterans of Chicago blues including pianist Pinetop Perkins, guitarist Luther Johnson and the rhythm section of bassist Calvin Jones and drummer Willie Smith, who had decades of experience playing with Waters. The group also featured fresh new blood in the form of guitarist Bob Margolin and blues harpist, Jerry Portnoy. With this group Waters was often provoked to the heights he regularly reached decades earlier and this group was largely responsible for rejuvenating Waters career in the latter 1970s. Variations of this lineup would tour extensively, including overseas, where they played several of the biggest jazz and blues festivals.
Presented here is one of those performances, recorded at the Nice Jazz Festival in France in July of 1977. The Muddy Waters Blues Band gave three performances over the course of this two-week festival, including one where jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie sat in with the band. This set features no guest appearances and is relatively tame in comparison to many of Waters performances of this era, but still clearly conveys the strength of this remarkable band and finds Waters himself in strong vocal form.
The recording begins with Waters' band playing one of their signature instrumental openers, "Back At The Chicken Shack," which serves as a brief sound check exercise before they introduce Waters and he makes his grand entrance to the festival stage. With Waters joining in, they segue into one of his signature songs, the down and dirty "Hoochie Coochie Man," which kicks things off. Although it's a tight straightforward reading of the song, Waters delivers an engaged vocal and the contributions of pianist Pinetop Perkins and the blues harpist Jerry Portnoy both stand out. An equally tight reading of "Baby, Please Don't Go" follows, which features some fine guitar work from Johnson and Margolin.
Likely because they were performing before a jazz festival audience, the next number showcases the entire ensemble playing a jazz inflected blues instrumental, before continuing with several choice vocal numbers. Then its back to the business of the blues for the remainder of the set, beginning with a loose romp through Little Walters' "Everything Is Gonna Be Alright" that also serves as a backing jam in which Waters introduces the musicians. The absolute highlight of this set follows with a great performance of Waters own "Howlin' Wolf," which is a nice slow burn from beginning to end. In terms of this set, this number best represents the strengths of this band, as it features plenty of gritty slide guitar, Portnoy blazing on harp, outstanding piano work from Perkins and Waters himself in powerful form.
With limited time, Waters and his muscular band conclude with a take on the obligatory "Got My Mojo Workin'. Perkins and Portnoy both stand out here. With its call and response vocals, in which the group echoes Waters' lead, this provides one last opportunity to engage the festival audience, before the band wraps it up with the outro instrumental, "Hold It," as Waters exits the stage.