For Pops: A Tribute To Muddy Waters
I have mixed feelings about tribute albums, and about children of legends attempting to carry on the legacy. I think it’s great that the heirs are interested in music, and it makes sense they would engage in music similar to their parents. However, if they try to clone the past work it often falls flat or comes off as dishonest because the music isn’t theirs. It is their parents’ music. Whether it is Muddy Waters, Luther Allison, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, Lonnie Brooks, Johnny Copeland or a host of others, that music was theirs. It came from their experiences, their relationships, their toils, triumphs and tribulations. The children of these musicians had different experiences, and trying to re-create the music of their elders will never resonate as much as making music of their own. Luckily, Blues is a big tent and those who stick with the family business have plenty of space to stake out their own claim.
Larry “Mud” Morganfield got started late in the game, but with his live shows and two critically acclaimed albums he has begun to develop his own version of traditional Chicago Blues. I was pleasantly surprised by his Severn Records debut, Son Of The Seventh Son. I was initially dubious of Larry Morganfield due to his “Mud” moniker and what I suspected was an attempt to cash in on his father’s legacy. However, the music changed my mind. At first I couldn’t tell if it was flattery or forgery; it was too damned good. The amount of care that went into the music could not come from anything other than the genuine article.
Apparently many people picked up on Mud’s sincerity and Severn was flooded with requests to get him and Kim Wilson on record together. According to Severn Records president David Earl, they “couldn’t ignore all the requests. After we released Mud Morganfield’s Son Of The Seventh Son album and The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ On The Verge disc, the phone was ringing off the hook and the inbox was flooded with emails. The topic was always the same: ‘You have to get Mud and Kim to do an album together!” Mud and Kim were in agreement and the duo set forth to commemorate the 100th anniversary of McKinley Morganfield’s birth, ambiguous as it is.
Mud captures the spirit of his father’s vocals, but even more so, he captures the tone and phrasing so well that if you close your eyes and listen close you’d swear it was Muddy reborn with his 21st Century mojo working. However, if you keep your eyes closed and ears open you’ll also hear Mud loud and clear. The variations are there and somehow they make me smile. I want to know Mud is in there, giving us his version of this treasured music. Mud’s partner for this outing, Kim Wilson, is a music legend in his own right. Wilson successfully evokes all of Muddy’s harp players from Little Walter and James Cotton to Junior Wells, Paul Oscher and Jerry Portnoy yet remains very much Kim Wilson. The rest of the band is also top notch and features Billy Flynn and Rusty Zinn on guitars, Barrelhouse Chuck on piano, Steve Gomes on bass and Robb Stupka on drums. The album was produced by David Earl and Steve Gomes and recorded at Severn Sound Studios in Annapolis, Maryland.
Mud Morganfield and Kim Wilson picked a great mix of songs, avoiding almost all obvious choices. They chose just enough hits to draw people in but then hit them with some equally great rarities. Muddy Waters had a vast reserve of songs and rehashing his biggest tunes would have been a major misstep. Instead we have Mud and Kim bringing you in with “I Just Want To Make Love To You” and capturing you with “My Dog Can’t Bark” and “Gone To Main Street.” The songs were recorded live with the band in one room and Mud in a vocal booth. The interplay and tightness of this band is incredible and their dedication to their craft is palpable. If Chess Records had modern equipment, this is how these tracks would have sounded. There is just enough mix of old and new to hold your attention and side by side comparisons will reveal the contributions of all involved.
“She’s Got It” has the classic “Mannish Boy” call and response riff with Mud’s hum over top. Wilson and the band have a raw edge that rocks this tune hard. “Just To Be With You” finds Wilson pushing the tune, going deep into his gut and bellowing the blues through his Mississippi Saxophone while Barrelhouse Chuck sublimely tickles the ivories, and Mud energetically and emphatically declares he would do anything, honey, just to be with you. On “I Love The Life I Live, I Live The Life I Love” Kim Wilson’s harp is howling like the highway wind around a tour bus heading South on I-55. Barrelhouse Chuck’s piano takes “I Don’t Know Why” into Chicago boogie territory and he burns up the 88’s with a lot more energy than the original and transforms this fairly obscure tune into a true contender.
“Nineteen Years Old” gives the guitar players some time to shine and again Barrelhouse Chuck steals the show with his ebullient fills. The liner notes don’t say which guitarist takes the slide leads but Mud calls Billy Flynn by name in the song so I suspect it’s him. He has the perfect tone and touch. Muddy’s slide playing was deceptively simplistic. He didn’t play a lot of notes but he knew exactly how to play them. Billy Flynn, if it was him, made Muddy proud for sure with his succinct, impeccable playing. The record closes with another slide guitar driven tune “She Moves Me.” This time, it’s a slow blues dirge and Wilson’s lonesome harp and the forlorn slide play unison runs that will make your hair stand on end.
This particular group of musicians, hand-picked by Mud Morganfield, Kim Wilson and David Earl, is one of the best tribute bands I’ve ever heard. I love this record, and I usually don’t give much attention to tribute albums after a few listens. They are usually superfluous and lacking understanding of the original music and/or musicians. I knew Mud’s style and sense of history already, and what can you say about Kim Wilson? Someday people will be making albums in tribute to him. Even still, I had only moderate expectations of For Pops – A Tribute To Muddy Waters. However, these two men and their band have served up an album that just might serve as the ultimate tribute to McKinley Morganfield. The familiar songs sound so authentic you’ll be digging out the originals in disbelief, and the wide variety of tunes on For Pops will expose listeners to the breadth of Waters’ catalog, hopefully opening their ears to other hidden gems from the late blues master. This is a fitting birthday present to Mud’s Pops and a great way to celebrate the 100th birthday of the father of modern electric blues. You will not find a better tribute to Pops Morganfield than For Pops – A Tribute To Muddy Waters.
Follow this link to hear the opening track on For Pops – A Tribute To Muddy Waters, courtesy of Severn Records:
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