July 12, 2021

Kudos should go to ‘Big Eyes’ and Calmese for coming back in at the same time after most of the stops…

So it’s 1977, and guitar-slinger Johnny Winter has just produced and played guitar on blues legend Muddy Waters’ latest album Hard Again. He jumped at the chance to work with the mighty Muddy as any blues player would, and produced an album that garnered a Grammy award and effectively rebooted both his and Waters’ careers. Not surprisingly, a tour was then mooted, featuring both bands. Winter was having none of it though, finding the idea of Waters potentially opening for his own band particularly odious. The way he tells it, “I won’t do that, I refuse to have Muddy Waters opening the show with his band. So I said, we either play together or I don’t want to do it. And it worked out perfect, ‘cos everybody felt the same way.” And so the scene was set for a dream team triple header, with Winter and Waters sharing the stage, both playing guitar and singing, with harmonica powerhouse James Cotton on the side. Cotton had been Waters’ harp player for over a decade in the ‘50s and ‘60s before breaking away to front his own band, and had reunited with him on the aforementioned Winter-produced album, so his presence on the tour was an absolute requirement.

James Cotton, Johnny Winter, Muddy Waters

The 16-date tour featured the same line-up as the album, with Muddy’s touring band of Bob ‘Steady Rollin’’ Margolin on guitar, Joe ‘Pinetop’ Perkins on keys, Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith on drums, and Charles Calmese on bass, augmented by Winter and Cotton. The second night took place at the famed Boston Music Hall in Massachusetts, relayed live on local radio station WBCN as well as being recorded for posterity. Now, over 40 years later, the set has been dusted off and released as a live album by Retroworld as part of its Great American Radio series. The album retains the original show format over two CDs, including regular voice-overs from the WBCN radio presenter, and two brief interviews at the end, one with Pinetop Perkins lasting just under two minutes before he is called back to the stage for an encore, and then a longer one featuring all three stars. They are all clearly pumped up by the occasion, and it seems a bit pernickety to point out that actually, it’s not all that good – everyone’s amp is turned up to 11 and the whole event has something of the quality of an end-of-evening jam session. Don’t get me wrong, if I’d had the opportunity to see this stellar cast anywhere close to my home town, I’d have been there in a shot, and it’s clear that  the audience are loving every moment – the applause is thunderous for every number, but subtlety and restraint were never going to be on the menu. So the set must be taken for what it is – a riotous celebration; a stellar event in gig history.

The first number, The Blues Had A Baby And They Named It Rock’n’Roll, having already started off-air, fades in with the DJ voicing over the top. Guitar hero Freddie King had died literally a fortnight before the release of Hard Again, and the band pays tribute with a couple of King numbers, the instrumental Hideaway and the slow blues You’ve Got To Love Her With A Feeling, featuring some fine piano work from Perkins. Their version of the classic Rocket 88 would have been great, but the vocal mic doesn’t appear to be turned on at this point, with the vocals coming through very weakly, a flaw which is duly acknowledged on the album track listing.

Cotton’s harp is parping away in the background most of the time, with a solo here and there, but he doesn’t really come into his own until the opening number of the second disc, a 12-minute epic titled simply ‘Instrumental’. This is the highlight of the set for this reviewer; a great, rocking harmonica boogie, nicely mixed, and with a complex set of stops and starts, which are really not easy to judge. With the excellent harp playing punctuated by several short piano solos and some natty drumming at the five-minute mark, kudos should go to ‘Big Eyes’ and Calmese for coming back in at the same time after most of the stops! It transforms into a mid-tempo blues at ten minutes, then changes again for a big crash ending, to huge applause. Other highlights include a lustful take on the Waters classic Mannish Boy, and the brilliant band-and-audience sing-along Got My Mojo Working, which concludes the set.

Promoter Alan Robinson describes in his sleeve notes, meeting Winter at a show in North London years afterwards. “For a bloke who must’ve weighed about eight stones dripping wet, he had a handshake like iron!” he recalls. Winter went on to produce and play on two more Muddy Waters albums plus an official live release before Waters’ death in 1983 from a heart attack. Winter, frail though he appeared in his later years, continued gigging right up to two days before his death in 2014. James Cotton continued to front his own band until he passed away in 2017 at the age of 81. It’s only right that their fruitful and hugely enjoyable collaboration should be commemorated with this great celebration of the blues. Guest spots are one thing, but it’s unlikely that three such giants of the genre will share the touring stage in such camaraderie again.