Review by Teresa Hopkins
Artist: JOE BONAMASSA
Album: “Muddy Wolf At Red Rocks”
Label: J&R Adventures
Release Date: March 24, 2015
See the tracklisting at the end of the review.
The cicadas sing their distinctive summer song, scoring Joe‘s narration as it begins: “We went down to the Mississippi Delta to see the land where Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf came from… to see what was in the dirt and what was in the water that made these men cornerstones of Blues music.”
Road tripping in a ’57 Chevy on gravel and dirt roads alongside the cotton fields, Joe marvels at the sight of the fertile land before him and of the legends born and raised here. They would pick the cotton by day and at night, entertain folks in the juke joints across the South with a new kind of music that would become the foundation for all of Rock & Roll today.
On August 31, 2014, cars flow toward Red Rocks Ampitheatre like tributaries of the great Mississippi itself, fans filling the arena until it nearly spills over. They have gathered in the middle of these 300 ft. high, red sandstone monoliths near Morrison, Colorado at 6,450 feet above sea level, to experience Joe Bonamassa and his all-star band pay respect to the two Blues legends with their own interpretations of some of the songs.
Footage of Muddy Waters, reminiscing about life as a young sharecropper, then rocking his Telecaster at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival with (writer Willie Dixon’s) ‘Tiger In Your Tank’ segues to the present time, as Joe and his band kick in with their version of the song to open the show—three piece suits, Telecaster, and all. The crowd is already on their feet, rocking and swaying to the irresistible steady beat. The rest of the band—full horn section and harmonica included—are top-notch, and clearly into it every bit as much with each note they play.
Joe swaps the Tele for a tiger maple Les Paul and a slide for ‘I Can’t Be Satisfied’. He trades off with Mike Henderson (a Nashville artist known for his own guitar chops) on the harmonica, then lets Reece Wynans (you remember him from SRV’s Double Trouble) dazzle with some B3 playing before taking the helm again. They bring down the tempo a bit on ‘You Shook Me’, then rouse it up for ‘Stuff You Gotta Watch’. The big-band brass and their background vocals make this tune a lot of fun. What strikes me as particularly cool is that Joe doesn’t make it The Joe Show. He is all about sharing the spotlight with Mike, Reece, and the rest of the band. Kirk Fletcher (quite the bluesman himself) plays the lead breaks in several spotlight moments, and I enjoy listening to him just as much. They round out the Muddy half of the show with a killer version of ‘All Aboard’.
The sound of the cheering crowd fades just a bit as Howlin’ Wolf appears in old film footage, describing the spirit behind his genre of choice:
“When you ain’t got no money and can’t pay your house rent and can’t buy you no food, you damn sure got The Blues…” He whips out his blues harp for a little intro before belting the first verse of the smooth and steady ‘How Many More Years’. Joe grabs one of his vintage blonde Strats and he and the band take over from there in the present tense—and how! These guys are having a blast with ‘Shake For Me’ and ‘Hidden Charms’. After introducing the members of the band, Joe and another of his bevy of six-stringed beauties, an ES-335, sound especially sweet on ‘Spoonful’. While Joe is most easily recognized as a guitar man, his voice is strong and soulful, getting better with time. The energy and the mood at Red Rocks is palpable throughout the show and for the last song of the Howlin’ Wolf portion on ‘All Night Boogie’.
Jimi Hendrix‘s ‘Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)’ is a time machine, leading Joe and the crowd through the musical portal from the past to the present.
Tonight’s encores: a fiery rendition of ‘Oh Beautiful’, ‘Love Ain’t A Love Song’, the melancholy blue of ‘Sloe Gin’, and ‘The Ballad of John Henry’ to close out the show. His performances on these songs are some of the best I’ve seen and heard.
Interestingly, some of the tunes most identified with Muddy Waters (‘Mannish Boy’, ‘Got My Mojo Workin”) and Howlin’ Wolf (‘Smokestack Lightning’, ‘Wang Dang Doodle’) were not included in the set. I think those have been covered by a lot of artists already, and I like that Joe dug just a little deeper for some of the gems he ultimately chose for this outstanding setlist. The horn section and the polished production do make Muddy’s and Wolf’s music sound at times more Chicago than Clarksdale. On a foundational standpoint though, they strived to stay as true to the originals as they could while amping them up with a new verve.
The bonus material on Disc 2 features an hour of footage of Joe’s road trip (with producer Kevin Shirley) to Mississippi on August 20, just 11 days before his show at Red Rocks. It is more of a pilgrimage, really; Joe’s lifelong dream has been to visit the Crossroads, where it all began.
They visit the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, which has the remnants of Muddy Waters‘ actual house from Stovall, Mississippi (what was left after a tornado tore through it). Inside are several pieces of memorabilia, including a life-sized, lifelike wax figure of Muddy holding his beloved gold-top Les Paul. During an informal conversation with the museum’s curator, Shelly Ritter, Joe talks about having been inspired by listening sessions on Saturdays that his father would call “Record Day”. Joe’s dad had introduced him to a wide variety of artists, many of whose music Joe came to love and take to heart. He’d initially come to the Blues through the wave of British guitarists such as Jeff Beck and others.
This caused him to dig deeper, to find the roots of this music for which he’d developed so much passion. “There’s something about this part of the world, musically, that’s mystical,” Joe says. Clarksdale has been a Mecca of sorts for blues fans, considering many of the masters lived, worked, or played here at one time. The point of dispute, however, is whether or not it is host to the Crossroads of Robert Johnson legend. When Joe and Kevin come to the intersection of Highways 61 and 49, something just doesn’t feel right. The area has nary a visible trace of its purported legendary status, save for a tall monument of three blue Gretsch lookalikes with the road signs. And doesn’t the devil prefer to be closer to the river?
They travel on to Rosedale, and when they come to the intersection of Highways 1 and 8, Joe is feeling a vibe. They pull over into the lot of a nearby establishment to take a better look around and are approached by Leo McGee, proprietor of Leo’s At the Levee. The three men discuss the Crossroads legend, further convincing Joe he’s come to the right place. While in Rosedale, Joe and Kevin drive across old dirt and gravel roads, past the cotton fields, over the levee, and to the great Mississippi River herself, musing about all of the old songs, realizing where much of the
songwriting material came from. The legend and the romanticism around it, Joe clearly sees, are far removed from this reality, where many bluesmen from sharecropper’s families lived in shacks without running water, electricity, or enough money.
The rest of the bonus material includes a look behind the scenes at Red Rocks, where Joe, Kevin, and the all-star band prepare for the big show. Also featured on the disc is footage of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and a very nice gallery from before, during, and after the show (courtesy of photographer Christie Goodwin) to top it off.
Joe says that in the 25-year history of his career, this is the largest concert he’s ever played. 9,000 people were in attendance, and $5 of every ticket purchased were donated to Keeping The Blues Alive (Bonamassa’s non-profit organization) for a total donation amount of $40,000!
There are cynics, and I’ll admit, I used to be one of them. But after seeing this performance at Red Rocks and having the opportunity to hear his thoughts and lifelong passion for the Blues—as well as his veneration for the genre and those who founded it—I have to say I’ve gained a ton of new respect for the guy. He loves music. He eats, breathes, and sleeps it. It is the very life in his soul. I think Joe Bonamassa is the real deal, and I believe McKinley Morganfield and Chester Burnett (Muddy and Wolf, respectively) would be happy that Joe carries the torch for the next generation, and for all he’s doing to keep the Blues alive.
The All-Star Band includes:
Nick Lane – Trombone
Lee Thornburg – Trumpet and Horn Arrangements
Ron Dziubla – Saxophone
Mike Henderson – Harmonica
Michael Rhodes – Bass Guitar (Nashville)
Anton Fig – Drums (of David Letterman’s band)
Kirk Fletcher – Guitar (NY)
Reece Wynans – Keyboards
Production: Kevin Shirley/Caveman Productions, Roy Weisman, Executive Producer
Formats: CD, DVD, and Blu-Ray
01. We Went Down To The Mississippi Delta
02. Muddy Waters Talking
03. Tiger In Your Tank
04. I Can’t Be Satisfied
05. You Shook Me
06. Stuff You Gotta Watch
07. Double Trouble
08. Real Love
09. My Home Is On The Delta
10. All Aboard
11. Howlin’ Wolf Talking
12. How Many More Years
13. Shake For Me
14. Hidden Charms
16. Killing Floor
17. Evil (Is Going On)
18. All Night Boogie (All Night Long)
19. Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)
20. Oh Beautiful!
21. Love Ain’t A Love Song
22. Sloe Gin
23. The Ballad of John Henry
24. Mississippi Heartbeat (Opening Title)
25. Muddy Wolf (Credits)