In the mid-Seventies, old Mississippi/Chicago bluesman Muddy Waters had record-label problems, but still an audience. Young Texas bluesman Johnny Winter had never been a pop star, but had one too. So Johnny producing and playing on an album by Muddy wasn’t really a long shot; and Hard Again came out great. (“5★♫” series introduction here; with an explanation of why the title may look broken.)
The Context · Nobody has ever played electric blues better than McKinley Morganfield. I saw him a few times, the last time just months before his death; of that, I wrote here: He was old and seemed older; was helped onto the stage and performed sitting down. The music was fine as always. And at the end of the show, of course they played Mannish Boy; suddenly Muddy lurched up out of his chair and found the strength to bust a few moves and his hollering of “I’m a MAN!” moved into frightening territory, could his body take it? Then he stood with a vast serene grin, waving at the audience. He was a man.
Those who don’t know about Muddy might want to check out his explosive performance of Mannish Boy in The Last Waltz (only a few months before this recording), generally available on YouTube, and his 1964 acoustic outing Folk Singer, much-beloved by audiophiles for its intimate uncluttered sound.
Back Story · What happened was, I followed a link from Sasha Frere-Jones who’s got approximately the best job in the world: Rock critic for The New Yorker. The link was Tussle’s Fantastic “Tempest” and the mag was actually hosting the music. It sounded nice on my laptop so I queued it up on the big truthful system at home, but was left entirely cold. Yeah, there were beautiful noises, beautifully orchestrated, but an aching soul-shaped vacuum in the middle. So I dived for the LPs and came up with this more or less by accident. That would be a happy accident. It’s amazingly good.
The Music · It’s Muddy and Johnny’s names on the cover, but James Cotton really should be there too; the band sound is built on his harp and Johnny’s guitar entwined so closely you often can’t tell where one stops and the other starts.
Wikipedia says that Muddy didn’t play guitar on this, so that’s all Johnny and Bob Margolin.
Mannish Boy became, late in his career, Muddy’s signature tune, and it’s a good one. The version on The Last Waltz may be a little more vivid, but Johnny’s howling behind Muddy is awfully intense, and the band is all thunderous precision.
On Bus Driver, James Cotton steps to stage center, and that’s a good thing. Johnny comes on slide when Muddy asks him, but James is right there in behind him and boy do they sound good together. For a long time too; this one stretches out, no hurry at all. On this one, either Muddy stood a little too far back from the mike, or Johnny needed to give the vocal track a bit more punch.
Want to be loved speaks to anyone’s heart, I hope, not just mine. This one has a little more swing than you find on the rest of the record, never a bad thing. It’s short, like a pop song; and once again, the harp leads the band.
On Jealous Hearted Man, that harp goes up to the edge of atonal, but (this is blues) doesn’t cross it. I wonder if James Cotton ever played with a jazz band; I’d like to hear him step outside. Aside from that, if you had to discard a track, this might be it.
And then on I Can’t Be Satisfied it all goes suddenly acoustic. There’s space between the notes, only maybe not quite enough; the rhythm guitar could’ve been subtracted. But Johnny’s National Steel solo is full of grace, no flashy licks but who needs ’em when you’re going back and forth with Muddy Waters?
On The Blues Had A Baby And They Named It Rock And Roll, there is, appropriately, a whole lot of electric guitar. The band is laying back here, just going with the groove. I’ll pay to hear this band do that any time. “The blues got soul!” Muddy exclaims; superfluously.
Deep Down In Florida isn’t like the rest of the record; it’s slow and played sparingly; the instruments aren’t all over each other and you can each hear each voice stepping into the conversation and back out. I have to say that Willie “Big Eyes” Smith’s drumming here is awfully intelligent. But this is the track where Johnny Winter reaches back and decides to do some producing; as in orchestrate the voices in the soundstage. Which seems to be musically the correct choice for this one.
Crosseyed Cat opens all-acoustic; harp and drums. The electric guitars swirl in behind Muddy on the verses, but the center of the song is the first break, a remarkable (and short) harp/drums outing, a bit of guitar obbligato off to the side.
The closer is Little Girl and it’s probably the purest blues in this extremely pure collection. Johnny manages to surprise the ear a bit on this one, and he’s normally pretty predictable. Once again, James Cotton is the star. Wow, it’s awfully good.
Sampling It · The songs are outstanding, but the whole album is best thought of a single really good piece of music, and you should consume it that way. It’s $9-ish at iTunes, but what’s interesting is that over at Amazon, along with the reasonably-priced CDs, there are several vinyl options, from $20 and up. This write-up is based on the original late-Seventies vinyl, and I’d say $20 for that package is a steal. I’m sure the digitized versions are perfectly OK too, but man, this vinyl is something special.
I was thinking I should say a few words on the subject, and in fact I wrote so many that I broke it out into a companion post, Why Vinyl? But it’s OK; this is a very special recording and you’ll enjoy it however you listen.