What’s the big deal about Joe Bonamassa’s Muddy Wolf at Red Rocks show?
As a Joe Bonamassa fan, every release is a big deal, of course, live or studio, because it means more music from my favorite musician, and who doesn’t love that? But there’s something about this particular live album that I think is even a little bit more special than usual.
One thing that’s extremely unique about this release is that the album documents the first time Joe had played the stunning outdoor venue that is Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Last week I posted an article about some of the other great artists who have played the iconic venue, which you can read here. Red Rocks was Joe’s biggest show to date as a headliner, and what’s amazing is that he was able to sell it out no problem despite playing the blues. I know it’s a place Joe was dying to play – what musician wouldn’t be? – and the fact that he conquered it so brilliantly must make him feel pretty good.
But what’s extraordinary about this show isn’t limited to the venue in which it was played – not by a long shot. After all, the show isn’t just called “Joe Bonamassa at Red Rocks,” it’s been titled Muddy Wolf at Red Rocks. The spirit of the show lies in Joe paying homage to two incredible blues icons, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Who are these two blues titans anyway?
McKinley Morganfield, otherwise affectionately known as Muddy Waters, has often been called the “father of modern Chicago blues,” a form of urban blues that sprouted from the Great Migration of African-American workers from the rural south to the industrial centers of the north, including Chicago. Although he started in the acoustic rural delta blues tradition of greats like Son House and Robert Johnson, in 1945, he was given his first electric guitar by his uncle, a move which would definitively help to shape the Chicago urban sound. He also started playing with one of the most exciting and acclaimed bands in blues history, featuring Little Walter on harmonica, Jimmy Rogers on guitar, Willie Dixon on bass, Elgin Evans on drums, and Otis Spann on piano. Muddy and his band had a string of genre defining songs that included “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “I Just Want to Make Love To You,” two of my very favorites and songs that had a huge influence not just on the blues, but on rock as well.
Chester Arthur Burnett, otherwise affectionately known as Howlin’ Wolf, was another dominant force on the Chicago blues scene and had a great, friendly rivalry with Mr. Waters. He apprenticed with the great Delta bluesman Charlie Patton, learning to play guitar and about the craft of showmanship. He was also an early adopter of the new electric guitar, which had a drastic effect on his sound. After recording several tunes with the famous Sam Phillips in 1951, he was signed to Chess records and relocated to Chicago where he had a number of Billboard chart hits, including “How Many More Years” and the extraordinary “Smokestack Lightning.” Along with Waters, Wolf was a force to be reckoned with on the Chicago blues circuit, and to this day remains one of the most important and loved musicians in the history of the genre.
The fact that Joe’s latest release is a tribute show is a rare moment indeed. Sure, tribute bands in rock might be a dime a dozen – there seems to be a different Grateful Dead tribute band passing through my neighborhood on a weekly basis – but this is no tribute band. This is one of the leading artists of his time in a genre paying tribute to the leading artists of a past generation. A current blues titan honoring icons of the past. To me, listening to Joe Bonamassa play a Howlin’ Wolf tune is like hearing a Yo-Yo Ma rendition of Bach’s cello suites. It’s the best honoring the best. But whereas in classical music the notes remain the same, blues is a largely improvisational genre, with its evolution moving backwards and forwards. So just as Muddy and Wolf have influenced the style and playing of Joe, a Bonamassa rendition of “How Many More Years” or “Spoonful” is going to sound significantly different from the original records that we are used to hearing. That’s the beauty of this particular beast. Like hearing Wynton Marsalis cover Miles Davis or Thom Yorke of Radiohead play some Neil Young, the evolution of the genre is encapsulated in the whole, and the present is pregnant with the past and even the future, as artists like Joe continue to evolve towards new blues sounds.
Muddy Wolf at Red Rocks is like a focal point in the history of the blues, where past, present, and future are all bound up in one exhilarating, unrepeatable, breathtaking moment in time. We don’t have enough of those moments in music history captured in great quality audio and video recordings. But I’m sure glad we have this one. And that’s why Muddy Wolf at Red Rocks is a pretty big deal.
– Brian R.
To purchase Joe Bonamassa’s Muddy Wolf at Red Rocks click here.
For tour dates and to purchase tickets, click here.