THE annual Durban International Blues Festival is under way, and so are the usual debates.
The one about the place at such a festival for artists whose blues connections are tenuous at best and sometimes completely absent is answered easily enough, by reference to commercial imperatives, political expediency, paying pipers and calling tunes. Another wonders about the point at which the audience is going to tumble to the fact that the succession of tortured expressions on the faces of a string of flash guitarists endlessly soloing over what starts to sound like the same 12 bars is more probably the result of the pain of knotted fingers than any soul-centred anguish.
In fact, one of the organisers recently commented to me about the difficulty of making people understand that blues virtuosity is not measured in notes per second.
However, there’s invariably an antidote to all this that makes it worth going again and again, and this year it’s Jimmy D Lane from Chicago, whose father, Jimmy Rogers, played in arguably the greatest blues band ever, the Muddy Waters band of the first half of the 1950s, with Little Walter, Otis Spann, Willie Dixon and drummer Elgin Evans.
The point of Muddy’s bands — which were mostly pretty great — was that virtuosity was never allowed to be an end in itself. The players’ command of their instruments was necessary for the band to sound as good as possible, but that’s all.
By the end of the 1950s, Muddy Waters was a genuine blues star, probably the biggest, in fact, but his method remained the same: superb hard-working performance after superb hard-working performance by some of the best blues players ever.
Yet what always prevailed was the sound, excitement and tight control of the band; and, of course, Muddy’s magisterial vocal presence.
Walter and Rogers had been replaced in the harmonica and second guitar chairs by James Cotton and the wonderfully named Auburn Hare, who called himself Pat, who once recorded a song, full of hostility and aggression, called I’m Gonna Murder My Baby, and who spent the latter part of his life in jail for doing precisely that.
This band, with the mighty Spann still on piano, a rhythm section of Andrew Stephenson and Francis Clay, and the guts and spirit of its illustrious predecessor, fully present, made one of the great live records, Muddy Waters At Newport 1960.
The 1960 Newport Jazz Festival was Muddy’s introduction to a large white audience.
Just as Otis Redding would do seven years later at Monterey, he knocked them stone dead with a set that achieved staggering levels of energy and passion.
Waters, who left the guitar duties to Hare, was so transported during a blistering I’ve Got My Mojo Working — which he reprised as an encore following a standing ovation — that he grabbed hold of Cotton and danced him across the stage, sober and dignified business suit and all.
Happily for posterity, the performance was filmed.
The set featured a mix of strong new material and all-time blues classics such as Mojo, Hoochie Coochie Man and Big Joe Williams’s Baby, Please Don’t Go, as well as Big Bill Broonzy’s I Feel So Good, and a wonderfully smouldering Soon Forgotten, originally recorded, with Broonzy on guitar, by St Louis Jimmy Oden as Soon Forget You.
A riot earlier in the weekend meant that Muddy’s would be the last Newport festival performance for two years.
The poet Langston Hughes, who was doing duty as MC, wrote an impromptu Goodbye Newport Blues on the spot. Spann sang it in the absence of Waters, whose exertions had apparently worn him out.
The band, which had driven all the way from Chicago to Rhode Island for the gig, drove back the next day.
More in this section
- ARTS: The vital economic impact of the arts in the UK
- Portraits of the muso as an artist
- Fixing service delivery woes with paint
- The pitfalls of product placement
- FILM: The Great Gatsby; Bernie; Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor
- Jury out on The Great Gatsby as Cannes festival kicks off
- Licensing bill to be redrafted after avalanche of disapproval
- Saxonwold ANC ‘to act against Atul Gupta’
- Gupta brothers are merely a symptom, not the problem
- Burger King fires up its grill in Cape Town
- Health insurance plan, price regulation soon, says minister
- Courts reel in SARS ‘fishing expeditions’ against taxpayers