Chess’ much-vaunted Fathers and Sons 2-LP set, which documents the studio (1st LP) and live (2nd LP) encounters between the old guard and the new Turks of the Chicago blues, is an attractive, unpretentious success and should do well commercially. Certainly it’s one of the finest sets of performances from Muddy in quite a while and will do much to offset the bad taste left by the previous Electric Mud and After the Rain albums.
Actually, the performances are surprisingly conservative efforts — certainly not the sort of exciting or fruitful cross-generation, cross-stylistic music one might have been led to expect from the lineup; Waters and Spann (and perhaps drummer Sam Lay) representing the modern Chicago blues mainstream, Bloomfield, Butterfield and Duck Dunn signaling more recent extensions of modern electric blues styles. No, the anticipated fusion doesn’t really take place, and the younger musicians seem content in undertaking roles that are wholly subservient to Muddy’s music. It gives an indication of just how highly the sons regard the father(s), and is a fine tribute to Muddy.
Mike and Paul are almost completely self-effacing throughout the album, particularly on the studio-recorded tracks — “All Aboard” (actually a remake of Crudup’s “Mean Old Frisco”), “Mean Disposition,” “Blow Wind Blow,” “Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had,” “Walkin’ Thru the Park,” “Forty Days and Forty Nights,” “Standin’ ‘Round Crying,” “I’m Ready,” “Twenty-Four Hours” and “Sugar Sweet.” The impression left by these performances is that the participants were striving towards recreating the sounds and textures of Muddy’s original recordings of them and, in this, they’re fairly successful. They’re also helped greatly by the fact that these are songs that have not been done to death, so there’s a certain amount of freshness just due to this. Producer Norman Dayron chose wisely in determining what numbers were to be concentrated on at the sessions (I know for a fact that he sifted through virtually every Waters Chess recording, including unreleased numbers, to come up with a program of tunes that were good and strong but not over-familiar, and his advance planning paid off handsomely).
Happily, Muddy is in excellent voice throughout these performances and he comes across solidly and excitingly. This is in fact some of the best, most convincing singing from Muddy in a hell of a long time; these tracks show that when he’s at the top of his game he’s unbeatable. And he’s there most of the way through these performances. The music takes its lead from Muddy, and everything falls in place behind him.
Butterfield is excellent, playing with a great deal of controlled power, with taste and invention to spare, and tons of energy in reserve. His amplifier tone is beautifully gutty and funky, with just the right edge of cutting intensity. And he never overplays or indulges himself; his accompaniments perfectly complement Muddy’s singing — Paul is listening and responding all the time. Why, Butter, what big ears you have! The basic impetus of his work here is clearly Little Walter, and he’s got it down beautifully, as any number of performances reveal — “Mean Disposition,” “Blow Wind Blow” (two tasty hot Buttered choruses, the first with Bloomfield fills), “Forty Days and Forty Nights,” “I’m Ready,” and so on. Just tasty, intelligent, feelingful harp work, spare, lyrical, driving in turn — and always appropriate. And almost as rhythmically relaxed and insinuating as Little Walter, which is high praise indeed. By the way, while we’re talking about harmonica playing, there’s superlative chromatic work by Jeff Carp (formerly with Sam Lay, lately working with Earl Hooker) all the way through “All Aboard,” acting as a sort of continue to Muddy’s singing and Paul’s rhythmic interjections, on regular harmonica, on the other channel. But on this track it’s Jeff’s show, and he does a hell of a job.
Though he gets a few solos, Spann’s role is primarily rhythmic, and his playing seems a shade less incisive than it has been in the past (his recent heart attacks doubtless explain his adopting a more subdued role). And his piano sound, while clearly defined, is a bit distant sounding.
Bloomfield is almost completely subsidiary to Muddy, although he does have a few soloes in his usual style. Mike’s at his best here — in terms of the overall contours of the music, that is — when he works closely with Muddy and plays in a style akin to the usual second-guitar role developed by such as Little Walter and Jimmy Rogers. That is, good, interesting bass guitar lines that contrast nicely with what Muddy’s playing, or in brief line or phrase-ending fills. He’s actually less effective in solo, for here he plays in his own distinctive, very modern style and this tends to clash with the generally funkier needs and colors of Muddy’s music. Mike’s playing on “You Con’t Lose,” for example, seems a bit too cute for the tune, and his solo on “Walkin’ Thru the Park,” while good, is just a bit too frantic, particularly in view of the already busy textures on which it’s overlaid. The solo with which “I’m Ready” ends also seems inapposite when contrasted with what’s gone before. And so on. Generally, though, Mike does a good supporting job, the only clashes occurring when his own basically sweet melodic style is superimposed on Muddy’s guttier, more rhythmically forceful and less introspective of lyrical approach.
Let me emphasize, however, that these are fine performances on their own terms. It’s perhaps unfortunate that they hew so closely to the arrangements and textures of the “original” recordings of the tunes because this inevitably invites comparison with the originals. And quite frankly, these recent performances — all of them — come off second best. I don’t believe I’m being unfair, obstinate or wrongheadedly romantic in saying this, either: the originals just happen to have greater power, more clearly defined textures, better organization and focus more subtle rhythmic playing and, finally, greater originality than do these. For people who are not familiar with Muddy’s originals this will not be a problem, of course, and these pieces can be enjoyed for what they are — strong, direct, modern Chicago music played honestly and unpretentiously. I do hope, though, that new listeners will be motivated by these performances into checking out the original recordings, which Chess hopefully will be issuing as part of its forthcoming ambitious reissue series.
The second LP contains six performances — “Long Distance Call,” “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” “Honey Bee,” “The Same Thing,” and two versions of “Got My Mojo Working” — recorded at an April 24th Chicago benefit concert for the Phoenix Fellowship. Personnel is the same as for the studio sessions, with the exception that drummer Buddy Miles is added (to little audible effect) for the second “Mojo.” Not as polished or as well recorded as the studio material, these tracks possess a good bit of excitement and spirit — though not enough to challenge comparison with the original Waters recordings of the tunes.
Again, Muddy is in excellent voice and, fortunately, his singing is one of the few elements of the proceedings that were recorded adequately. His singing here is simultaneously relaxed and driving, with a nice easy swing that is never forced. Then, too, Butterfield plays slashing, burning harmonica on these tracks, never letting up and pushing things along. He and Muddy make these performances what they are. Bloomfield has two brief solos, neither particularly interesting primarily because they’re just too short, and he pretty much stays in the background, working with the rhythm section.
The recorded sound is not very good; it starts off very poorly but does manage to get a bit better. Spann’s piano and Bloomfield’s guitar are inaudible on “Long Distance Call,” but they’re brought up to a relatively proper level by the time “Baby, Please Don’t Go” (composer credit given Muddy rather than to Big Joe Williams; why?) gets under way. Things pop in and out through the rest of the performances. Sometimes Butterfield’s harp playing is all but lost in the shuffle, other times it cuts through the fuzzy textures with an abrupt sharpness. Apparently the recording situation was difficult (people milling around backstage, etc.), but still and all recording engineer Reice Hamel — who ostensibly specializes in location recording — should have been able to do better than this. With good mikes and a Scully 4-track, the sound should have been far better defined and balanced than this.
Verdict: some of the finest Muddy performances in a while but still a long way from the original performances on which his towering reputation rests. The project is helped not a little by Butterfield’s intelligent and feelingful playing, and Sam Lay’s propulsive drumming. Certainly this is the only recent Muddy Waters set to buy … and that’s what this set is — a Muddy Waters album. The faces of some of the sidemen may be white and young but otherwise that’s the sole difference between the performances of this and several earlier editions of the Waters band.