Sarah Vowell once wrote, and I am paraphrasing here, that what she loved in a song is that moment that something seems to fly out of it and explode in the air.
Sometimes in music history something just flies out and explodes in the air. And sometimes it’s caught on tape. That happened on a cold November night in 1981.Muddy Waters wasn’t getting back to the Southside of Chicago that much anymore, but this night he came to perform at Buddy Guy’s Checkerboard Lounge. The Rolling Stones, then on their famous 1981 tour, showed up to see one of their idols, indeed one of the sources of their music that took over the world, perform.
OK, maybe it wasn’t as simple as that, as impromptu, as magical. The gathering, Muddy Water and the Stones on stage together, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells joining them… this may have been planned and coordinated. It probably was. But the moment still explodes. And what happened on the Checkerboard’s tiny stage that night has circulated for decades in sometimes pricey bootleg editions. The new digital release comes combined with a complete sound restoration that makes this an essential buy for blues and rock fans or anybody who feels like they need a surfeit of cool.
The pleasures of watching Muddy Waters perform in this setting alone makes these discs worth picking up. He moves like no other blues singer and watching his somewhat oddly shaped hands both pound and caress his guitar constitute both a sensual and spiritual experience. His performance early in the night of “Baby Please Don’t Go” manages to break your heart, send shivers up your spine, and leave you more or less destroyed. Even as one of the aging elder statesmen of the Chicago blues in 1981, he exudes an aura of sex and power, showing off every attribute that so inspired Mick and Keith and that became an ineffable part of their own music and their persona.
In the middle of this extraordinary performance of one of his most well known numbers, the empty table up front (at first you are thinking, why is there an empty table on the night Muddy came back to Southside?) fills up with the Rolling Stones and their entourage. Keith Richards is drinking whisky straight from the bottle and Mick Jagger (wearing kind of a wind suit) obviously geeks out to the music that he loves so much, that put him at the center of some of the greatest rock and roll ever forged.
And then Muddy calls Mick up to sing a bit on “Baby Please Don’t Go”. And then he calls up Keith who, with signature cigarette hanging out of his mouth, walks across tabletops to get to the stage and starts to play. And you wonder if the folks at the Checkerboard that night understood that this would be the coolest thing that ever happened to them.
My favorite moment comes early. Muddy and Mick collaborate on “Hootchie Cootchie Man” that transforms into an ecstatic melding of the ’30s and the ’60s. But what really makes this an extraordinary moment is the way Jagger looks at Waters, an expression of pure love and admiration for the man and the tradition he represents.
It’s a moment that makes you remember that the blues saved the Rolling Stones, and saved the Rolling Stones for us. At a moment when their first manager wanted them to go pop, the Stones had said no. They had remembered Robert Johnson and Son House but, even more importantly, the Chicago blues tradition and Muddy Waters. They said no to becoming a forgettable ’60s pop act and became immortal. And the decision owed so much to those dirty little secrets about sex and death that the Mississippi Delta and south side Chicago had been whispering to each other for decades.
The camera work is better than you might expect for a live performance in the early ’80s. There are too many wide shots showing tables without showing us club goers responding to the amazing moment they are witnessing. This never becomes too distracting given what’s happening on stage. Its impossible to have too many lingering, even lingeringly awkward, shots of Richards and Guy blazing through one mournful, sexy tune after another or Waters and Jagger singing like their lives depend on it.
There are essentially no supplemental materials here other than some bonus tracks and, a real treat, a clip of the Stones doing “Black Limousine” during their 1981 tour.
That said, the second disc is really the best special feature of them all when it comes to a release like this. It’s a CD that captures most of the performance, ready to be fed to your favorite digital music platform. I’m really not sure why all band and concert docs don’t include a disc like this, or at least a digital download. This one does and it’s a great feature.
Both blues and rock fans probably feel that these sessions, while evoking all kinds of historical and emotional connections, are generally more symbolic rather than being great shows. The Howling Wolf London sessions are generally derided for this reason and I’ve never been a great fan of the Yardbirds/Sonny Boy Williamson collaboration (though it certainly has its moments.).
Something else happened that night on the Southside. Muddy Waters once said that “The Blues had a baby and its name was rock and roll.” The Checkerboard show became a nexus of history and music, almost an exposition of how the baby born to the blues changed the world.