Saturday, March 26, 2016

Joe Bonamassa: Muddy Wolf at Red Rocks (PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night, as part of one of PBS’s interminable “pledge” periods (in which the commercial-to-content ratio on America’s “public” television network approaches 1 to 1 — when Newt Gingrich, in his attempt to defund PBS altogether, said that these pledge-break periods were more offensive than the out-and-out commercials on the for-profit networks he had a point), KPBS showed a couple of music specials that I thought would be interesting. One was a 2014 concert by blues musician Joe Bonamassa given at the natural Red Rocks amphitheatre in Colorado (which became famous as a music venue when U2 did a concert there that was released as a live album and video called Under a Blood-Red Sky) which was called Muddy Wolf at Red Rocks. The title was supposed to suggest the content of his show: three sets, the first a tribute to Muddy Waters (t/n McKinley Morganfield), the second a tribute to Howlin’ Wolf (t/n Chester Alan Arthur Burnett — so both these archetypal Black blues singers were named after late-19th century Republican presidents!), and the third a set of Bonamassa’s own originals. Bonamassa is apparently attempting to fill the “white blues guitar virtuoso” niche left vacant a quarter-century ago by the death of Stevie Ray Vaughan, and he’s an incredible musician even though there’s a sense of dutifulness regarding his whole “Muddy Wolf” act. He’s got a pleasant if rather thin blues voice — somewhat to my surprise, while he doesn’t come close to Wolf’s magisterial intensity (the adjective I first thought of was “demonic” but I decided the last thing I wanted to do here is contribute to the ridiculous myth that blues musicians like Wolf and Robert Johnson literally sold their souls to the devil at the crossroads to attain their extraordinary talents) he seemed more comfortable being able to let his voice out more in the Wolf’s material rather than trying to emulate Waters’ gritty smoothness (not an oxymoron, as anyone who’s heard the records of the real Waters will know).

One thing that makes these PBS specials hard to evaluate critically is that what we see on TV is simply a loss leader for the bonus CD’s, DVD’s and tchotchkes that are advertised as premia for hefty contributions to the stations. In the 15-minute commercial breaks for PBS in between the 20 minutes of program, the announcers tell us endlessly that what we’re seeing is merely a portion of the full show, which you can only get if you contribute X amount monthly or 12X in one go — the hucksterism here is galling but what’s significant here is that you don’t know whether any deficiencies in the performance, particularly in terms of what songs by Muddy and the Wolf to represent them by, are Bonamassa’s fault or those of the editors who picked and chose from what he performed to assemble the version that got on TV. His song choices for Muddy, at least based on what actually aired, were considerably better than those for the Wolf: he started the Waters set with “Tiger in Your Tank” (at least partly because he had a film clip of the real Waters performing it which segued into his own version — he did the same thing latger with Wolf’s “How Many More Years”), then did “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” “You Shook Me” and the train blues “All Aboard” (which Bonamassa credited to the 1970 album Fathers and Sons even though Waters first recorded it in 1954 and he ripped off the opening verse from Arthur Crudup’s 1942 record “Mean Old Frisco Blues”). While there are plenty of Waters songs I would have rather heard than those (like “Rolling Stone,” from which a certain British rock group you may have heard of took their name, and trademarks like “Hoochie Koochie Man” and “I Just Want to Make Love to You”), at least the four songs on the TV version were solid hits and representative of Waters’ style. (“I Can’t Be Satisfied” was Waters’ first commercially released record — though he’d previously recorded an acoustic session on a plantation for Alan Lomax in 1940 and three sides for Columbia in Chicago in 1946 that the company didn’t release until the early 1980’s! — and he cut it in 1948 for Leonard and Phil Chess’s Aristocrat label before they changed the name to Chess in 1951, and it was such a hit Waters had a hard time persuading the Chess brothers to let him record his full band instead of just Waters’ vocal and acoustic guitar and Big Crawford’s bass, the combination on “I Can’t Be Satisfied.”)

The Wolf set was less successful; Bonamassa began it with “How Many More Years” (the flip side of Wolf’s first record, “Moanin’ at Midnight,” and originally recorded in 1951 in Memphis, Tennessee with Sam Phillips, later famous as the founder of Sun Records and discoverer of Elvis Presley et al., producing and Ike Turner playing piano!) and then did “Shake for Me,” “Evil (Is Going On)” and another early side, “All Night Boogie.” For a musician who learned the blues via Eric Clapton and Cream (Bonamassa said in an interview that Cream’s Goodbye LP was the first blues, or at least blues-ish, record he ever owned and it was passed to him by his father) I’m surprised that he didn’t do either of the Wolf songs Cream covered, “Spoonful” and “Sitting on Top of the World” (and he didn’t do Cream’s one Muddy Waters cover, “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” either!), nor did he do Wolf’s biggest hit, “Smokestack Lightnin’,” nor the awesome “Little Red Rooster” (covered, less effectively, by the Rolling Stones) or “Back Door Man” (covered, again less effectively, by the Doors). But then again, maybe the full version of this show available if you make a substantial contribution to KPBS contains some of the songs I’m complaining I didn’t hear last night. Bonamassa is a magnificent guitar player — and fortunately the show’s director got close enough to him to demonstrate the string-bending technique that gives blues guitar playing much of its power (I couldn’t help but think of how frustrating it is to watch the surviving films of Jimi Hendrix and see the director cut away from what we most want to see: Hendrix’ fingers on the guitar, showing us how he got those amazing sounds!), but there’s a sense of duty about his performance. In his “The State of Dixieland” article in the late-1950’s/early-1960’s magazine Jazz Review, Richard Hadlock noted that in attempts to recreate a previous style “the tune and the arrangement, as symbols of other men in other times, are all-important and the performance an almost mechanical means of preserving them. … Like a professor who escapes the perplexities of today’s world by living in history, the musician who emulates past performances is on relatively save and predictable ground. His musical goals are laid out before him, requiring only hard work and enthusiasm to reach them. The large burden of individual creative responsibility … is gone, for music that may have been difficult when it was conceived can be reconstructed with comparative ease years later. And the results can be lots of fun” — as well as allowing great music to live on in live performance even after its creators have died.

The results certainly are fun in Bonamassa’s performances, even though the third set containing two Bonamassa originals wasn’t especially more creative than the cover sets that preceded it: I’m guessing at the titles of the two songs he played (the first was “Oh, Beautiful” and the second could have been called “Happiness,” “Crown of Thorns” or “Larky Love Song”) but they were in the style less of 1950’s blues pioneers like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and more like the 1960’s “psychedelic” musicians that drew from the blues but added volume, distortion and above all, length. “Oh, Beautiful” opens with a Hendrix-style fretboard rub (I’m still amazed that Stanley Jordan was hailed as a guitar innovator in the 1980’s for being able to make sounds by just rubbing the strings on the fretboard without actually plucking them, when Hendrix had been doing that during his short-lived prime; but then Hendrix had done so many guitar innovations that one apparently just got lost in the shuffle, just as Glenn Miller in 1939 was able to claim credit for a “new” big-band voicing in which a clarinet doubled the sax line an octave higher, when Duke Ellington had been using that device as early as the 1933 record “Rude Interlude”) but for the most part Bonamassa’s “originals” sound like someone whose model when he was starting out was Eric Clapton. His improvisations were actually tighter-knit than Clapton’s sometimes disorganized rambles (Clapton was — and is — the sort of musician who can deliver a great solo in a confined space but can get dull if given enough musical time to hang himself) but it was still an antique style, just one from the 1960’s instead of the 1950’s. Still, Bonamassa’s playing is a lot of fun, and the people who give enough to KPBS to get tickets for his concert in December at the Balboa Theatre downtown will almost certainly enjoy themselves.