Blues-rock guitarist Joe Bonamassa is no stranger to covering the songs of the blues masters, having, for example, included tracks from Robert Johnson (“Stones in My Passway”), Howlin’ Wolf (“Who’s Been Talking”), and Willie Dixon (“I Got All You Need”) all on his recent Driving Towards the Daylight album. But never before has Bonamassa devoted an entire recording to the songs of the legends that came before him, as he’s done on his latest double CD, DVD, and Blu-ray collection Muddy Wolf at Red Rocks.
The first in a planned series of concerts and recordings paying homage to some of the biggest names of the blues, Muddy Wolf captures Bonamassa presenting the songs of two greats, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, as performed during a historic concert at Colorado’s famous Red Rocks Amphitheater last fall, the largest show of Bonamassa’s career. (Bonamassa has already announced the dates for the next installment of the series, which will come in the form of a “Three Kings” – as in Albert, B.B., and Freddie – tour taking place across the U.S. this summer.)
Recorded Labor Day weekend of 2014, Muddy Wolf includes more than two hours of songs from Waters and The Wolf as well as a handful from Bonamassa’s own catalog, backed by a band (appropriately dubbed the Muddy Wolf Band) assembled just for this occasion that features Reese Wynans (Double Trouble) on keyboards and organ, longtime Late Show drummer Anton Fig, Kirk Fletcher on guitar, Michael Rhodes on bass, Mike Henderson on harmonica, and Lee Thornburg, Ron Dziubla, and Nick Lane on horns. This of course includes some of the artists’ most famous numbers in tracks like “I Can’t Be Satisfied”, “Tiger in Your Tank”, “You Shook Me”, “Spoonful”, “Killing Floor”, and “Evil (is Going On)”, but also some lesser-known songs such as Waters’ “Stuff You Gotta Watch”, “Real Love”, “My Home is On the Delta”, and “All Aboard” and Wolf’s “All Night Boogie (All Night Long)”.
Both music discs start with short clips of each of the greats performing their songs – for Waters, the punchy “Tiger in Your Tank”, and a gritty “How Many More Years” for The Wolf – before transitioning seamlessly into the Muddy Wolf Band’s takes on those same numbers. The horns and keyboards help give many of the songs a swinging sound, and it’s clear from very early on that this isn’t just about Bonamassa showing off on guitar: although there are plenty of Bonamassa solos, you’ll also hear a whole lot of “c’mon Mike”, “c’mon Reese”, “c’mon Kirk”, and “c’mon Michael” calls from Joe throughout the show, often one right after another.
One of those swinging tracks is the “Tiger in Your Tank” that opens the Waters disc, after which Bonamassa and co. work into the country shuffle of “I Can’t Be Satisfied”, then slow things down with a haunting “You Shook Me”. A ripping “Stuff You Gotta Watch” is a great full-band effort, including some old school doo-wop style background vocals from the band, with more slow, stinging blues coming on “Double Trouble” and “My Home is On the Delta” amid such faster tempo numbers as “Real Love” and the chugging closer “All Aboard”.
Bonamassa’s voice may be slightly better suited to the songs of Wolf than Waters, making the second disc even more impressive than its lead-in, as the band tears through a rich selection of Wolf tunes that includes the swinging “How Many More Years” and “Shake for Me” to the all-out romp of “Hidden Charms” and some Frampton-esque guitar from Bonamassa on “Spoonful” before closing out the Howlin’ Wolf portion of the show a few songs later with a smoking “All Night Boogie (All Night Long)”.
Disc two finishes up with a few numbers of Joe’s own, including “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)” (Jimi Hendrix), “Oh Beautiful!”, and the catchy “Love Ain’t a Love Song” from Bonamassa’s latest album Different Shades of Blue, as well as a couple of fan favorites in “Sloe Gin” and the driving “John Henry”, incorporating some screeching guitar from Bonamassa at one point during the former and neat bass effects from Rhodes throughout the latter. Combined with the Waters and Wolf tracks around which the project revolves, these songs help make for one of the more interesting and entertaining sets of music you’ll have experienced in a long time.
As with most Bonamassa videos, the DVD/Blu-ray is exquisitely filmed and produced, showing the usual nice variety of close-ups and distant stage shots, except in this case, with the majestic Rocky Mountains as a backdrop instead of a theater, concert hall, or opera house. Indeed, there are some terrific panoramic shots showing the venue and its surroundings, with the DVD and Blu-ray also offering the advantage of being able to see such things as the band all decked out in their white jackets to contrast Bonamassa’s black – similar to the formal attire of many older bluesmen’s bands, the fun the band members are clearly having on such songs as “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “Killing Floor”, and Bonamassa’s blistering solos, including a particularly killer one on “You Shook Me”.
The videos also include more than an hour and a half of bonus features, including a 20-minute behind-the-scenes segment complete with band interviews and rehearsal footage; a photo gallery; historic footage of Waters and The Wolf (including some of Waters, John Lee Hooker, and pianist Sammy Price performing at a Newport Jazz Festival), snippets of which can also be seen/heard throughout the DVD and CD; and the hour-long film “Joe and Kevin’s Excellent Adventure…to The Crossroads” that follows Bonamassa (wearing a “Hanks Vintage Guitars, Pittsburgh” t-shirt) and producer Kevin Shirley on a trip through Mississippi, an excursion that included visits to the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale where they talk Delta history and the evolution of Bonamassa’s own fascination with the blues, to the crossroads at both the intersection of highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale and highways 1 and 8 in Rosedale, with Joe sitting down to play for a bit at a joint called Leo’s at the Levee just off the latter, and to the White Front Cafe that served as the inspiration for Robert Johnson’s song “Hot Tamales (They’re Red Hot)”, just as is this latest set from Bonamassa.
Here’s the band doing Wolf’s “Shake For Me” to get you started: