Mud Morganfield & Kim Wilson,
For Pops: A Tribute to Muddy Waters
(Severn, 2014)

Larry "Mud" Morganfield carries on the legacy of a towering American musical figure who also happens to have been his father, the late Muddy Waters, born McKinley Morganfield. If the younger Morganfield's vocals lack the rough depth and back-country menace of the older's -- Mud can't help being a genial sort, it appears -- that gives his singing, even if Muddy-inflected, its own distinctive personality. That's definitely a plus on an album composed entirely of material his father sang and, in half the cases (seven of 14 cuts), wrote.

Another plus is that the songs are carefully chosen so that even the familiar songs aren't the warhorses. In short, the worn-out-its-welcome "Got My Mojo Working" is, thank God, nowhere to be found. For every "Trouble No More" (Muddy's rewrite of Sleepy John Estes's "Someday Baby Blues") and "She Moves Me," there are pleasing obscurities such as "Gone to Main Street" and "My Dog Can't Bark." The latter, written by the late Otis "Smokey" Smothers, boasts the wonderful line "Ain't nobody's business if I walk like a dog." As anybody who knows the genre can attest, blues is far from sad and self-pitying; as often as not, it's witty and hilarious.

Producers David Earl (Severn Records president) and Steve Gomes understood that an album like For Pops needed to be recorded as the classic mid-century Chicago blues discs were: live in the studio. The band that backs Morganfield and Kim Wilson -- who is co-founder of the Fabulous Thunderbirds and among the most respected living blues-harmonica players -- consists of five blues-seasoned musicians who worked ensemble-style as the tapes rolled. Only Mud's vocals were cut separately to ensure a clean sound.

Muddy Waters has been gone for more than three decades, and the music that represents itself as electrified blues these days has moved ever more into a vaguely rooted form of guitar rock. (Less politely phrased, too often toward sheer bombast.) The kind of blues Muddy, Howlin' Wolf and their contemporaries fashioned grew out of the traditions of the African American folk music of the Deep South, largely Mississippi. It was the fusion sound of rural and urban, alongside (of course) their brilliant performance of it, that made what they did so influential and unforgettable.

The particular historical experience that drove the blues is, of course, in a fading past. But Morganfield, Wilson and their band capture the feeling on this entertaining and satisfying album. If you don't like what they're doing, there is a simple explanation: you just don't like the blues.

music review by
Jerome Clark

18 October 2014

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