By 1981, Muddy Waters' musical legacy was cemented in stone in letters writ large by three decades of amazing music. Born McKinley Morganfield in the Mississippi Delta, Waters moved north to Chicago during the 1940s, where he proceeded to revolutionize the blues with an electric, urban edge. As a performer, musician, and bandleader who discovered talents like guitarist Jimmy Rogers and Little Walter Jacobs, Waters left an indelible imprint on the history of the blues.
Invited to perform at the annual ChicagoFest outdoor festival in August 1981, Waters was the undisputed mack daddy of the city's blues scene. After a long dry spell during the 1960s and into the mid-70s, Winter had enjoyed a satisfying final chapter with a trio of fine albums produced by blues-rock guitarist Johnny Winter during the latter part of the decade. Still, he had no band until long-time friend and harmonica player Mojo Buford put one together specifically for this festival.
Muddy Waters' Live At ChicagoFest
The concert performance begins with Waters' classic "Mannish Boy," the song's stomp-n-stammer beat losing none of its power through the years regardless of its familiarity. With Waters' best blues growl in front, the band grinds out its bragging, boasting rhythms as the elder bluesman jumps-n-jives across the stage.
Muddy delivers a down-n-dirty reading of Big Joe Williams' rock-n-roller favorite, "Baby Please Don't Go." Combining gruff, soulful vocals with bandmember Mojo Buford's raging harpwork and a sturdy, shuffling beat, the performance transcends the song's blues roots in becoming a blues-rock standard.
I'm A King Bee, Baby...
With a downstroke rhythm and punctuated by blasts of dirty harp, Slim Harpo's "I'm A King Bee" is as greasy a slab o' Delta fatback as you'll ever hear. Rocking along in a loping groove wide enough to drive a semi-truck through, Buford blows like a man possessed while the twin guitarists weld their thundercrash riffs into a single threatening stormfront.
A slow-burning blues bonfire, "They Call Me Muddy Waters" is both a signature song as well as a musical statement by the blues giant. Muddy cranks out some outrageous slide-guitar here, his fretwork buzzing and humming like the rattletrap machinery on a factory floor, his vocals drenched in raw, cracking blues energy as Buford's harp sings a sad song.
Walking Through The Park With Johnny Winter
The up-tempo "Walking Thru The Park" is a fast-paced blues stroll fueled, in part, by Buford's energetic Little Walter-styled harp runs. As the band hits a steady rolling groove, Waters introduces his old pal Johnny Winter. The emaciated albino bluesman plugs in and rips into a tasteful 12-bar solo, his thin frame belying the ferocity of his powerful vocals.
Winter sticks around for the rest of the show, lending his six-string talents to the heavy groove of "Going Down Slow," peppering the song with squalls of notes and bringing his trademark Texas drawl to the vocals. Buford matches Winter note-for-note with a raucous harp solo, while Waters fires up a little fretboard sparks of his own.
Chicago Blues Jam
With the fans on their feet and cheering after witnessing Winter's six-string pyrotechnics, Muddy shows the young pup that there's still life in the old dog yet with a rockin' take of "She's Nineteen Years Old." After belting out the first couple of verses with authority, Waters takes off on one of the most electrifying slide-guitar solos that your ears will ever enjoy. With lightning-quick fretboard runs and a caustic groove, Muddy peers into the faces of the audience with challenging menace, returning to the song's next verse content that he's left the crowd awestruck.
"You've Got To Love Her With A Feeling" evolves into a Chicago blues jam when bluesman Mighty Joe Young appears out of nowhere during Buford's harp solo, grabbing the microphone from Winter and launching into a blustery "Five Long Years" as a smiling Waters looks on in amusement. Young is joined by Big Twist, who roars out a couple of verses until Muddy jumps into the fray with a few loudly-roared words of his own. The concert ends with the up-temp Chicago blues romp "Got My Mojo Working," Waters belting out the classic tune with a swagger as Buford rocks the house with his fiery harp riffing.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
Although the blues legend was clearly in the twilight of his career at the time of the 1981 ChicagoFest, Waters turns in a spirited performance nonetheless. Waters' friend and former producer Johnny Winter helps with some of the heavy lifting, sharing vocals with Waters, and bringing his immense six-string talents to bear on the classic material.
The underrated George "Mojo" Buford more than proves his right to stand on the stage alongside Waters where great talents like Little Walter, Junior Wells, and James Cotton once paced restlessly. Although the band that Buford put together for the ChicagoFest concert was moderately talented, it is Buford, Winter, and Waters that fuel the performances here. Waters' Live At ChicagoFest DVD is a heck of a lot of fun, a concert film that delivers a glimpse of the talent and charisma that made Waters the King of Chicago blues. (Shout! Factory, released April 21, 2009)