Bluesman Bob Margolin on Muddy Waters and the New Live at Rockpalast CD/DVD Set
There is simply no name in Chicago Blues bigger than Muddy Waters. His booming voice, piercing slide guitar and inimitable swagger helped define the sound of post-war electric blues. The release of the CD/DVD set Muddy Waters – Live at Rockpalast is a joyous occasion for blues fans. Footage of Waters and his touring band performing at Germany’s Westfalenhalle Dormund lets modern day audiences get a glimpse of the late bluesman’s indomitable stage presence. To honor this exciting new release and gain more insight into Waters and his music, Elmore writer Jon Kleiman talked to bluesman Bob Margolin. A blues talent to be reckoned with himself, Margolin played guitar in Muddy Waters’ band from 1973 to 1980. Margolin’s long stint with Waters included an appearance in The Band’s legendary Last Waltz concert and guitar work on the comeback album Hard Again.
“When I saw the opportunity to join Muddy’s band, he had been my favorite musician for years,” Margolin reflects. “I was 24 years old and I realized just how much I would learn and grow from the experience. I was an apprentice to a master. Muddy was world class – he’s on the short list of the greatest blues musicians ever.” Despite growing up in Boston during the heyday of psychedelic rock, Margolin was drawn to the blues at an early age. “Chuck Berry is the artist who inspired me to start playing guitar,” recalls Margolin. “Young blues musicians and local college radio stations allowed me to follow Berry’s influences back to Muddy Waters and Chicago Blues. The first time I heard Muddy on the radio I was taken by his powerful voice. I also thought he had a great slide guitar player. Later, I learned that the voice and guitar both belonged to Muddy Waters. I fell in deep and haven’t crawled out since!”
The Grammy-winning Hard Again, released in 1977, boosted Muddy Water’s career and still remains one of the most beloved blues albums. Even casual listeners can recognize the anthemic reading of “Mannish Boy.” According to Margolin, “The album was a labor of love for Johnny Winter. He used his rock star fame to publicize Muddy. He produced and played guitar on Hard Again and three subsequent releases. I played on all four albums and developed a friendship with Johnny Winter. Many music fans became blues lovers after hearing Hard Again, which is just what Johnny Winter intended. The album captured a great band playing live and having fun. Winter used microphones placed near the ceiling to capture the ambience of the room, and it worked gloriously. The album did raise Muddy Waters’ visibility, as did touring as an opening act for Eric Clapton in the late ’70s. Like Johnny Winter, Eric developed a close friendship with Muddy.”
The commercial and critical success of Hard Again helps explain the confident, invigorated demeanor Waters displays onstage at the Westfalenhalle Dormund show. With an air of complete self-assurance, Waters owns the stage like few musicians before or since. Margolin recalls, “Muddy told me, ‘This is my best band since the one with Jimmy Rogers, Little Walter, and Otis Spann.’ You can’t get much higher praise than that!” Watching Live at Rockpalast, many blues fans will be impressed with how confidently harmonica player Jerry Portnoy (then in his twenties) exchanged licks with Muddy and pianist Pinetop Perkins. In Margolin’s words, “Jerry Portnoy’s exquisite tone and masterful technique are like an advanced class in blues harmonica. In addition to Muddy Waters, Portnoy played and recorded with Eric Clapton. Eric once told me how much he loved playing with Jerry.”
The Live at Rockpalast package includes a second DVD which captures a 1996 set by the Muddy Waters Tribute Band filmed at the Open Air Festival Lorely. Margolin was in this band as well. “I’ve watched both DVD’s closely, and it’s remarkable how little the band’s sound changed. Listening to both sets, there is a consistent sound that owes much to the rhythm section of Willie “Big Eyes” Smith on drums and Calvin “Fuzz” Jones on bass.” Compared to the 1978 set with Waters, the 1996 show has a looser, more free-wheeling vibe. Chicago legend Carey Bell is on board for harp duties, and Bell, Luther “Guitar Jr.” Johnson, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and Calvin “Fuzz” Jones all take turns on lead vocals. Levon Helm, who gained fame as a drummer and vocalist for The Band, lends his voice to a spirited reading of Waters’ “Gone to Main Street.”
Since leaving Muddy Waters’ band, Margolin has recorded a string of solo albums and continues to keep a busy touring schedule. “My most recent album, My Road, earned a 2017 Blues Music Award for Best Male Traditional Artist,” Margoliin notes. “I feel it’s my best recording so far. I’m working on a new album now and I‘m always trying to grow as a musician. I continue to honor Muddy Waters and bring his sound and a few good stories to audiences. Muddy put me on the road that I still ride to this day.”
Muddy Waters – Live at Rockpalast is available as a 2CD/2DVD set from MIG Music.