Muddy Waters looks like a candidate for the fifth face on Mount Rushmore. There's that much dignity and wisdom in his countenance, and his legend is of sufficient stature to make people take the bid seriously. But the way he's played on his last two albums. Waters deserves a national monument of his own.
Both I'm Ready and last year's similar Hard Again seem to have rejuvenated Waters, but rejuvenation may not be the issue. Waters seems never to have lost his incredible sense of the blues, either as a guitarist or as a vocalist, and all that was necessary was to place him in the proper context with the right supporting players. After all, this music is Muddy Waters' game — if he didn't invent it, he certainly made a contribution to it that only one or two other bluesmen can claim. In the end, I'm Ready is most impressive because of Waters' pure passion: he sounds unleashed, not rejuvenated.
Which certainly doesn't diminish his accomplishment here. If anything, I'm Ready is more impressive than Hard Again, though it plays by the same rules: mix some classic Waters' songs with a few new originals, and add to the artist's stage band some of his old, familiar Chicago cronies (James Cotton last time, Walter Horton and Jimmy Rogers on the new LP). This band is probably better than the last: Horton shreds Cotton's work, and the presence of the formidable Rogers, who has not worked with Waters in nearly a decade, helps contain producer guitarist Johnny Winter's occasional overexuberance, the only flaw in Hard Again's attack. "I'm Ready," always Waters' greatest statement of faith in himself, is nearly up to the original, and the versions of "I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man," "Screamin' and Cryin'." "Rock Me" and "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" more than hold their own, even when compared with the work of such younger bluesmen as Son Seals.
If I'm Ready suffers from anything, it's the lack of a really great new song — Hard Again's "The Blues Had a Baby" isn't matched by "33 Years" or "Who Do You Trust," this album's best originals. One might also wish that "Pine Top" Perkins, the secret weapon of Waters' touring band, got the kind of playing space here that he does onstage. Nonetheless, at this point, Muddy Waters is still singing like the true king of the blues, the last great original master of the form. Or, to put it another way, his mojo is working so well that it just might work on even you.