Muddy Waters: The Montreux Years
There's both nothing and everything special about Muddy Waters' Muddy Waters: The Montreux Years, a collection of performances from three 1970s Montreux Jazz Festivals. Ultimately, that verdict might be the cost of being a blues genius at the top of your game: there's nowhere else to go once you're at the top of the mountain. But for the listener, it's a powerful, important reminder of Waters' greatness.
I'll occasionally put on Waters' music, or it'll trickle through my shuffling MP3s. I'm a huge fan, but it sometimes feels like the pull of new music takes me away from older stuff. So much so, that I forgot how amazing Waters can be, that voice as strong, rich, and sweet as Vietnamese iced coffee. Listening to The Montreux Years was energizing, with his performances holding up almost half a century later. Not in the sense that he sounds contemporary, but in the way Waters personified the electric blues he also helped to invent. He sounds so much like himself, and so little like anyone else, that is almost places him out of time, like the same mountain that appears in hundreds of cave drawings, paintings, photos, and TikToks across centuries.
The recordings are solid and high quality, with Waters voice sounding like he's in the room with you. Whether it's an artistic choice, or a limitation of the original recordings, Waters is front and center in the mix, guitar right there with him, and bass, drums, harmonica, and piano all skittering around behind him in the background. There's not much separation between the instruments, which makes for a classic blues sound, which should have the blurriness of an impressionistic painting, rather than the sharpness of a high-definition digital image.
It feels funny to recap the songs, because Muddy Waters: The Montreux Years features the big songs you'd expect, all of them executed flawlessly. There are no surprises, like a reggae break on "Mannish Boy." Waters runs through songs we all know and love, digging deep, with his band right there behind him.
That means songs like the 1977 version of "Nobody Knows Chicago Like I Do," with Jerry Portnoy's harmonica shadowing Waters' vocals and the 1972 version of "County Jail," with wildly raw and brutal slide guitar courtesy of Louis Myers, of the Aces. And 1974's "Same Thing" features Junior Wells harp that veers between matching Waters' vocals and popping out of the tune like laser blasts from a science fiction movie. And with guitar courtesy of Buddy Guy, you can't go wrong. The performances all flow together, so you don't feel like you're listening to something cut-and-pasted together, yet every iteration of Waters' band brings a slightly different perspective to the table.
There are seven different cuts of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. I've seen a few over the years, and I'm not sure I could tell you how much they differ (people joke about new cuts offering three seconds of new material). Muddy Waters: The Montreux Years doesn't present a new side of Waters and his work. You won't listen and learn anything new about the bluesman. What's compelling about this is how electrifying it is to hear Waters. There are lots of his live albums and recordings floating around. I'm not sure I could, or should, rank them. The beauty of Muddy Waters: The Montreux Years is that it got me re-listening to Waters. So if you take nothing else away from this, remember to listen to Waters regularly. You'll never regret throwing him on.