A rainy Tuesday night at a performing arts center in an upscale northern New Jersey town, was the site of a tribute to two of the masters of Chicago blues: Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. The debate has been long as to which of the two is the true King of the Chicago Blues, and this night did nothing to give the edge to either one. It would be just as hard to pick your favorite child. Sometimes friends, sometimes not, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf had a rivalry which sometimes got personal, and maybe, just maybe, it was one reason they were both great.
The weather made for a late arriving crowd, but for mid-February, a little rain was definitely preferable to a lot of snow. The audience was still taking their seats as the lights dimmed and The Fabulous Thunderbirds took the stage. The T-Birds of old have mostly been replaced but singer and harmonica player Kim Wilson remains, and was the nearly constant focal point of the night.
Starting off the night with the Howlin’ Wolf classic “How Long,” the blues beat quickly made the tension of the day disappear. Kim Wilson played the role of lead vocalist, harmonica virtuoso and ringmaster, as he introduced and highlighted the talented performers during their featured moments on the stage. The first to be introduced was Tinsley Ellis, a southern blues guitarist. As Tinsley took over the lead role, the T-Birds slipped into their support role, which they adjusted perfectly for each of the different artists of the night.
Up next, Bob Margolin, who actually toured with Muddy Waters from 1973-1980, has learned from the master throughout his tenure with the band. His tribute to Muddy Waters lies in his slide guitar work. Margolin along with the other performers, was also quick to acknowledge the work of Wilson, and indeed his harmonica work is quite remarkable. From low and easy blues, to a take-no-prisoners wail, Wilson was the surprise of the night. From commanding the stage to walking down into the orchestra while playing a very small harmonica in a very large way, to completing his vocals without a microphone, Wilson held court while giving each of the other artists plenty of room to shine.
The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ “Take Me As I Am”
As Margolin left the stage, Wilson and band eased into the Sonny Boy Williamson classic “So Hard to be Lonesome,” often covered by Muddy Waters. Sweeter blues harp playing would be hard to find. After taking care of some business where Wilson informed the audience that the performers would be signing CDs in the lobby, either during the intermission or after the show, the band launched into a jam where Wilson played the harmonica non-stop for an astounding twelve minutes. This included a 4 ½ minute solo where he gave a tutorial on every aspect of what can be done with a blues harp. Absolutely incredible.
The second half of the show brought out the musicians whose longevity and stature in the business deserves respect and awe. Namely blues guitarist Jody Williams and old school harmonica legend, James Cotton. Williams played with Howlin’ Wolf in the 1950s and while time has taken a toll on him physically, the spirit of the blues remains. Known for his distinct tone and chord changes, Jody Williams can still dazzle an audience.
Listening to James Cotton play the harp is like being transported to an old blues dive down in the southern blues belt. Becoming almost a son to harp legend Sonny Boy Williamson, Cotton has played harmonica his whole life, and there’s a lot of living in those years, including over a decade of playing with Muddy Waters.
How many more years Cotton and Williams will be on the road is anyone’s guess. While the blues scene is still alive and has some good new contenders – like thirteen year old, Quinn Sullivan who regularly tours with Buddy Guy – the music that is made by the older generation’s masters will never be duplicated. These men lived through wars and discrimination and endless smoky blues joints. The have lived tirelessly on the road and their experiences have influenced their artistry. While one can only imagine just how spellbinding they were in their prime, it was beyond an honor to hear these legends this one time.
This particular show was nowhere near a sellout. Seeing and hearing the massive talent on the stage, it was sad to see so many empty seats. It would have been nice if the theatre, knowing there was going to be empty rows, could have made arrangements with a local high school and offer the seats to a music class as a way of promoting both the theater and a music genre which screams of old time Americana.
From well known classics like “I’m a Man” and “Got My Mojo Workin,” to some of the more obscure songs of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, the night was a lesson in the artistry and magic of the blues, and the teachers just couldn’t be beat.
Written by Kath Galasso