At Newport 1960
One Jaw-Dropping Night in a Blues Legend's Life
A master of sweetly crying guitar leads and flip jazz-like vocal phrases, Waters was rarely less than inspired when tape was rolling. His discography contains a tall stack of definitive records—early singles for Chess (collected on various hits packages) that depend on his already leathery voice, mid-career titles (Folk Singer, 1964) that present him in an "unplugged" acoustic context, and the late rocktinged collaborations with Johnny Winter (Hard Again, 1977) that have a stinging energy you might not expect from an elder statesman.
Still, in the great wandering of an epic blues life, one night stands out: Waters's 1960 performance at the Newport Jazz Festival. The Chicago-based singer and guitarist got the gig after highly acclaimed tours in Europe in 1958 and 1959 had raised his profile, and this performance, which anchored a blues evening, helped expand Waters's reputation beyond the Chicago clubs he called home. Released the following year, the live album took that even further; it's routinely cited as an inspiration by then up-and-coming British blues guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck (many of whom eventually performed with Waters).
The set list is essentially Muddy Waters's greatest hits. It's lacerating Chicago blues and clever reworkings of songs the man born McKinley Morganfield had been playing since he was discovered by musicologist Alan Lomax in the Mississippi Delta in the 1940s. There's the immortal Willie Dixon tune "(I'm Your) Hoochie Coochie Man" and the pleading "Baby Please Don't Go" (this is perhaps Waters's most riveting vocal rendition of the song) and a ripping "I've Got My Mojo Working." The focus is less on individual heroics than galvanizing group interplay, and the band, which includes rollicking pianist Otis Spann and harmonica virtuoso James Cotton, hits hot stride on the opener, "I Got My Brand on You" and then, miraculously, sustains it. Check out the way Cotton contributes to the locomotion of "Tiger in Your Tank." He positions his harmonica right alongside the guitar, thinking of himself as another rhythm instrument. And away they go, romping. Hear that, and it's easy to understand why those future guitar legends were so inspired. It rocks.
Released: 1960, Chess/MCA
Key Tracks: "Baby Please Don't Go," "I Got My Brand on You," "(I'm Your) Hoochie Coochie Man," "Soon Forgotten."
Buyer Beware: Several versions of this have been released; the best is the one from 2001, which offers serious audio upgrades from the original and four bonus studio tracks recorded a month after the Newport appearance.
Catalog Choice: The Real Folk Blues/More Real Folk Blues; Electric Mud; Hard Again
Next Stop: B.B. King: Live at the Regal
After That: Buddy Guy: Damn Right, I've Got the Blues
Book Pages: 848–849