Blues icon makes a classic comeback with a little help from his friends
When Muddy Waters’ contract with Chess was finally up in 1977, albino blues guitarist Johnny Winter quickly stepped in to sign the legend to his own Blue Sky label, thus allowing Muddy the chance to re-record some of his older hits and actually be paid in the process. Recorded at a small studio in Boston, and backed by a selection of fellow veterans, including James Cotton (harp), Pinetop Perkins (piano), and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith (drums), Hard Again (the title was suggested by Muddy) would turn out to be his best album in years, finding the elder statesman reasserting his mojo in a way which hadn’t been possible since the early ‘60s.
Throughout, Muddy comes across as confident, and sounding like a man half his age as he belts his way through a series of classic tunes, many of which date back to his golden age. On “Mannish Boy,” Muddy is firmly in control, whose vocals boom out of the speakers like a black Moses preaching from the pulpit. But this isn’t a religious passage, per se, more like Waters reading from another bible entirely, one of his own creation. Winter can be heard screaming with such enthusiasm as to indicate the amount of chemistry between each band member.
Muddy lays down some serious vibes (with Winter on slide) on “Bus Driver,” creates a musical storm midway through “I Want To Be Loved,” and raises a ruckus on “Jealous Hearted Man.” Muddy always came across as old even when he was young, so whether these recordings were made in 1977 or 1957 doesn’t mean a thing. The country-blues of “I Can’t Be Satisfied” has Winter playing pedal steel, with the rest of the band shuffling along like they’ve just walked out of a Charlie Patton time capsule.
Willie Dixon’s “The Blues Had A Baby And They Named It Rock And Roll #2” gets a rollicking workout, during which Cotton flexes some serious harmonica muscle, as he also does on “Deep Down In Florida,” while the rest of the group hump and thump their way behind Waters’ authoritative storytelling.
One of the appealing qualities of the LP is that everything recorded here seems so fresh and in the listener’s face, as if one were hearing a live performance, mistakes and all. Muddy’s take of “Crosseyed Cat” has exuberance written all over it, including the humorous lines “I stopped by my honey’s house/He started jumping from wall to wall… sat back in the corner and licked his balls/The maddest cat boy.”
Hard Again was clearly an opportunity for Muddy to reaffirm his position as one of the greatest and most popular exemplars of the blues, doing what John Lee Hooker would do more than ten years later on his Healer LP (although Hooker had a star-studded cast all knocking on his door). Even before his death in 1983, Waters would go on to say that Hard Again was one of his favourite LP’s, and rightfully so, because this is one raunchy album. But not only that, it can also serve as a history lesson. Not bad for a man in his seventies, wouldn’t you say?