Producer Larry Skoller is back with another project that takes a fresh approach to the blues tradition. Skoller received a Grammy nomination for the first volume of his Chicago Blues: A Living History series, which utilized a bevy of musicians to explore the many facets and stylistic variations of the city’s rich history with the music. (EDITORS NOTE: Chicago Blues: A Living History won the Blues Blast Music Award for Best Traditional Album in 2009)
Now Skoller is focusing on the legacy of the iconic Muddy Waters in honor of the centennial anniversary of the bluesman’s birth.
Like his other releases, this one comes with deluxe packaging – a hard cover booklet complete with numerous pictures of Waters at various stages of his life plus a lengthy essay from author Robert Gordon discussing Waters’ influence that extended well beyond the blues realm. Also included is a track-by-track listing of the musicians that appear on each song, a welcome feature that sorts through the rotating cast.
Skoller also contributes a shorter commentary in which he discusses the extent of Waters influence on music, then sings the praises of several key members of the project – John Primer, James Cotton, and Johnny Winter. The producer zeroes in on his take on the project with these comments, “By design, this album has not taken a strictly archival approach in its treatments of Muddy’s songs. Some tracks are handled traditionally, in deference to the original recordings; there are also contemporary treatments and new arrangements that focus on today’s sounds. Whether it be rock, pop, hip-hop….the earliest five-watt amplifiers or digital samples, drum loops, and electronica – ….these sounds all lead back to Muddy Waters”.
John Primer is the sole constant, handling the lead vocals on every track and plays guitar on most of them. His tenure as a member of Waters’ band provided an immersion into the bandleader’s trademark sound, making Primer a logical choice to lead the project. He sounds right at home on “Rosalie,” a tune that dates back to Muddy’s Stovall Plantation recordings. He is backed by Bob Margolin on acoustic guitar, Billy Flynn on mandolin, Steve Gibons on fiddle, Felton Crews on bass, and Khari Parker on drums.
“Good News” finds Kenny Smith laying down a sturdy shuffle, Margolin ripping off a nasty solo, and James Cotton blowing some meaty harp licks. Cotton is back for “I Feel So Good,” a song he recorded with Waters. Johnny Iguana gives his piano keyboard a workout on the cut. Things are scaled way back on “She Moves Me,” with Primer’s assertive vocal supported by Smith, Flynn on guitar, and Matthew Skoller filling the Little Walter role. Primer really captures the magic on “Feel Like Going Home,” supported by Crews and Smith. His slide guitar and moving vocal are the essence of the blues.
A cover of “Got My Mojo Working” is elevated by Primer’s spirited duet with Shemekia Copeland over Smith’s electronic drum patterns, which also appear on “Still A Fool”. Derek Trucks adds his usual stellar slide playing on the latter cut. Johnny Winter’s distinctive slide is the highlight of “I’m Ready,” recorded shortly before the guitarist passed away. “Last Time I Fool Around With You” proves that Keb Mo can hold his own with the other distinguished slide players. The electronic drums create an eerie setting on “Forty Days And Forty Nights,” featuring a moody solo from Gary Clark Jr., joined by Primer and Vincent Buchner on guitar and harmonica. “Can’t get No Grindin’” gets an energized treatment lead by Iguana’s mesmerizing keyboard efforts plus the usual strong harp licks from Billy Branch.
There is quite a contrast when Margolin’s gritty slide guitar collides with drum loop programming from Blaise Barton on “I Be’s Troubled”. Barton also plays spoons and tambourine on the track while Keith Henderson fills in for Primer on second guitar. The drum programming seems an odd distraction on an otherwise powerful rendition of “Mannish Boy”. Barton handles synth bass, Farfisa organ, and drum programming on “Trouble No More”. Tim Gant on clavichord adds another modern element that is tempered by Branch’s harp.
In total, this is a first-class tribute to one of the giants of the blues. The list of top-tier guest artists certainly adds to the appeal. Instead of rehashing classic tracks, Producer Larry Skoller makes the bold move to reimagine part of the program to project what Muddy Waters might sound like today. Listeners who share Skoller’s vision will be very pleased with this one.
- Reviewed by Mark Thompson