Whilst the late sixties and seventies were kind to Paul Rodgers the eighties and early nineties were someting of a mixed bag. Bad Company stuttered to a halt in 1982 with the largely disappointing Rough Diamonds. A self indulgent solo album arrived the following year on which Rodgers played all the instruments himself and whilst it was pleasant enough it lacked the quality it would have had if some top notch musicians had been on board to back up Rodgers top quality vocals. The Firm was an experiment with Jimmy Page which never really worked and was hampered in live shows by the brave but questionable decision to totally disregard both Rodgers and Page’s back catalogue from Led Zeppelin, Free and Bad Company. Following that The Law was never really a band just a one album collaboration with Kenney Jones which featured mostly outside writers material and was a little too swamped in a middle of the road AOR production for most.
So when 1993’s “Muddy Water Blues” album came along Rodgers was really in need of a decent product to get him back up with the elite. A return to the blues roots, a collection of heavyweight special guests, and lengthy tours during which the Free and Bad Company back catalogue was heavily plundered did the trick though and Rodgers was back.
Rodgers assembled a pretty heavyweight outfit for the album and as well as the numerous legendary guitar players, most tracks feature a different six stringer, the main band was packed with talent too. Jason Bonham on drums, Ian Hatton on rhythm gutar and no less than Pino Palladino on bass. The album kicks off with the only original composition on the album, the Rodgers penned title track ‘Muddy Water Blues’. The song actually tops and tails the album and it is the acoustic version that starts proceedings. It has a real delta blues swamp feel with great backing vocals from Alexandra Brown, Carmen Carter and Jean McClain which along with Mark Williams bass drum give it a great old time feel. Buddy Guy is the guitarist for this one and he provides some great picked blues guitar. Rodgers himself plays some nylon guitar to go along with his easy laid back vocal. A vocal which he as usual manages to make sound effortless. ‘Louisiana Blues’ is the first of the hard hitting electric tracks and has a great chugging riff from Trevor Rabin and a nice harmonica solo from Jimmie Wood. Whilst ‘I Can’t Be Satisfied’ starts with a nice funky solo from Brian Setzer before the drums come in and then it turns into a classic mid tempo blues stomp before ending as it began with some nice funky guitar. ‘Rollin Stone’ is the first of the lengthy classic blues tunes and has Rodgers delivering a vocal in the same sort of style as he did on Mr Big when with Free. The steam train guitar is provided by Jeff Beck and the two share the limelight perfectly. A proper Beck / Rodgers collaboration would have been interesting if this is anything to go by. Beck stays on board for ‘Good Morning Little Schoolgirl’ which is probably not the most politically correct lyric for these times but is still a great track written by Sonny Boy Williamson. Rodgers totally nails the vocal as ever and Becks guitar provides some great colour both above and below the vocal. When it comes time to let rip with a solo it is a superb understated chugger of a solo full of atmosphere. Brilliant stuff. Mark Williams is back with his rhythmic bass drum and some brushes to give the track even more old time delta blues authenticity.
The first of the Wilie Dixon tracks is up next with ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ a track which must have been recorded by just about everyone you’ve ever heard of but still manages to sound reasonably fresh in the hands of Rodgers and Steve Miller who is the guest guitarist this time around. Jimmie Wood is back with the obligatory harmonica. A couple of false endings and some interplay betweem Miller and Rodgers bring the song to a nice close. ‘She’s Alright’ features some Hammond from Ronnie Foster, an instrument which I always feel works well with Rodgers’ voice but that he doesn’t use often enough. Trevor Rabin is back on the guitar but despite the Hammond it is still one of the weakest tracks on offer here. ‘Standing Around Crying’ on the other hand may just be one of the best. Done in a standard rock blues way it reminds me in feel of one of those early Led Zeppelin blues tracks. The guitar this time comes from David Gilmour who puts in a good solid performance with some nice touches and a great solo. Again the use of the Hammond organ, this time played by Paul Shaffer, gives the song an extra dimension. Vocally it is similar in delivery to the bluesier Free cuts such as ‘Goin Down Slow’ from their debut album “Tons of Sobs”. Slash makes an appearance on ‘The Hunter’ and despite his good performance it seems a pretty silly idea to include it here to me. Rodgers of course had already recorded this track in the Free days with Paul Kossoff on guitar and who is going to better a Kossoff version. If it is not the worst track on the album it is certainly the most pointless and I would have loved to see Slash given a different vehicle to collaborate with Rodgers on. As good as his solo is you just want it to be Koss. ‘She Moves Me’ is a slower track which features Gary Moore on guitar this time and is pleasant enough without being anything too special although Moore’s guitar is as ever top notch.
Full time swing comes to the fore with ‘I’m Ready’. It is interesting for me as I am more familiar with the Frankie Miller version. My two favourite singers covering the same track is interesting but in the same way as you can’t prefer one of your children over the other I have to call it a draw ……. at least publicly !! Brian May provides some good funky swing time blues guitar and this led onto the ‘Reaching Out’ project and subsequently Rodgers collaboration with Queen. The third and final Willie Dixon track ‘I Just Wanna Make Love To You’ is another heavily covered track but Rodgers again lets rip with a belting vocal. As on the earlier track Jeff Beck’s guitar is the perfect foil to the vocal and as I said earlier it would surely have been nice to hear them make a complete album together. ‘Born under A Bad Sign’ doesn’t really fit with the rest of the album for me but is still a decent enough track, as you would expect with Neal Schon and Rodgers together. It just lacks the same blues feel as the rest of the album for me and is closer to Rodgers’ other solo output. The piano and Hammond help though but it would still be close to the albums low point. Part two of ‘Good Morning Little Scoolgirl’ is a more electric version and features Richie Sambora on guitar. It hasn’t got quite the same blues feel as the earlier one but this is done in a more straight up rock style and is not dis-similar to early Stones or Faces. The final track is a second version of the title track but this time done in an electric style rather than the acoustic version of the opener. The lyric is slightly different and the addition of the Hammond is a nice touch. Neal Schon provides the guitar and as well as he plays it still misses the blues picking that Buddy Guy provided on the acoustic version for me. Some sort of mixture of the two would have been my preference. Maybe the acoustic version to start turning into the electric version. There is no reason why Guy’s guitar couldn’t have contributed to the electric part as well although that could possibly have been seen as overkill I suppose. The piano under the vocal in places is a good touch and the song builds nicely to a climax before slowing down to end almost acoustically. Impossible to choose a favourite version I’m afraid. So maybe the decision to record two versions was justified after all.
The first pressings of the album also came with a bonus disc which featured Rodgers, Bonham. Palladino and Hatton revisiting some old Free and Bad Company tunes. ‘All Right Now’, ‘Wishing Well’ and ‘Fire and Water’ from Free and ‘Feel Like Makin Love, Can’t Get Enough’ and the track ‘Bad Company’ from Bad Company. In truth they are pretty ordinary run throughs and are obviously nowhere near the quality of the originals but it is still interesting to hear them in slightly reworked form.
“Muddy Water Blues” was recorded at various studios due to the many guests on the album but producer Billy Sherwood managed to keep the sound pretty similar throughout and the album has a real feel of a live jam about it particularly on the lengthier numbers. The album was nominated for a Grammy and Rodgers was back on track. This is an essential album for not only lovers of Rodgers but also of good solid blues music.
© Martin Leedham. First published on RYM October 2011