Bob Margolin Raises the Ghost of Muddy Waters in the Last Waltz 40 Years Later

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Last Waltz 40 Poster

Author’s note: We’ve changed the sentence in the article on Bob Margolin to read that he had to “forgo” the Legendary Rhythm ‘n Blues Cruise instead of “abandon.” Margolin writes: “That’s not my word and it’s not accurate. This was an opportunity and Roger Naber (of the Cruise) graciously understood and the change was months before the cruise which is happening now. If the TIMING was different I could have gratefully done both. I don’t want there to be a misunderstanding or problem when there was none.” Also, Margolin corrects that Eric Clapton did NOT play with Muddy at the original Last Waltz.
I’m sorry for the inaccuracies. –Don Wilcock

“Bob Dylan came in and all but took over the instruments with all the blues guys,” recalls lead guitarist Bob Margolin. “We had me and Eric Clapton playing guitar, Dr. John on piano, Levon on drums. Ron Wood was there on bass. Paul Butterfield was playing harp, and Bob Dylan was singing Robert Johnson songs.”

The year was 1976, and six hours after Martin Scorsese filmed The Last Waltz – a triumph many have called the best concert film ever – the musicians were still at it. “That’s part of the history and tradition of The Last Waltz, but it didn’t happen on the stage. It happened in the rehearsal rooms after everybody had been partying for six hours, and I said (to Warren Haynes on the first night of the current Last Waltz 40 tour) ‘I think we could use some of that.’ He said, ‘So, what song do you think it would be good to do?’ ‘Well, Bob Dylan sang ‘Kind Hearted Woman.'”

Margolin is currently on tour with The Last Waltz 40, a celebration of the original concert billed as The Band’s last performance. When I talked to Margolin on January 22nd, the day after the first night of the new tour in Hollywood, Florida, he was marveling at the similarities in tone and mood between then and now.

“So (last night) we went over ‘Kind Hearted Woman,’ and I played it kind of traditionally the way Robert Johnson had, and I sang it, and it was just a straight blues, and Warren played some beautiful slide guitar on it, and I said to him, ‘I wonder if I could just change it around and just tune up three strings just differently, and let me play slide guitar the way Muddy did on it while I sing it, and you play standard guitar.’ He does play slide on a lot of stuff, and obviously Warren is a spectacular slide player, and he goes, ‘Ok, we’ll do it that way.'”

Warren Haynes and Don Was, fresh from producing the Stones’ new album, Blue and Lonesome, are co-producing the current Last Waltz 40 national tour. Haynes, of course is known for fronting Gov’t Mule, re-invigorating the Allman Brothers Band, and touring with the Grateful Dead. Don Was is the go-to producer whose credits include Bonnie Raitt, Roy Orbison, and Van Morrison. If he had done nothing other than produce The Neville Brothers’ career-defining 1989 album, Yellow Moon, his creds would be secure.

Add to this an A-list of support musicians that include: Michael McDonald (The Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan); country hitmaker Jamey Johnson; keyboardist John Medeski of Medeski, Martin & Wood; funk drummer Terence Higgins from Dirty Dozen Brass Band; The Radiators’ lead singer and guitarist Dave Malone; Ivan Neville, member of the first family of music royalty of New Orleans, and leader of funk and jam band group, Dumpstaphunk; and New Orleans’ Mark Mullins and his Levee Horns. The cherry on the cake may just be the horn arrangements of the late Allen Toussaint.

Stellar as that lineup may be, Bob Margolin stands out as the only member of the current tour who was on the original Last Waltz bill. As Muddy Waters‘ band leader and lead guitarist, he is the link to arguably the best blues band of that era. In the Scorsese film, he plays guitar with Eric Clapton backing Muddy on “Mannish Boy,” a role he reprises on the new tour.

“Muddy didn’t pick up a guitar at the Last Waltz,” explains Margolin, “so his great slide guitar playing is not in the (film) The Last Waltz. So, I’ve been kind of reproducing the guitar parts I play (in my post-Muddy performances), and then sing over it, trying to be entertaining at the same time, but in the rehearsal I said to Warren, ‘Why don’t I play some of that slide right in that introduction to The Last Waltz’, and we did it last night.”

“(My version of) ‘Mannish Boy’ (last night), began with the slide guitar lick that sounded like Muddy’s part in the slow blues, and all of a sudden I just broke into ‘Oh, Yeah,’ like that, and it really got the crowd. Warren said, ‘I want this to be a living, breathing thing, not just a recreation, and so I want to do some different songs.'”

As iconic as Muddy Waters was, and as wonderful as Bob Margolin is at reprising Muddy’s work, he was not prepared for the adulation this Last Waltz redux lineup received on their first concert. It’s rare enough for him to get a standing ovation at the end of a set, but this show opened in Hollywood, Florida with a standing ovation. Working with the musicians on this bill was like a crossover on steroids for a man who, on one hand, engineered the sound of one of blues’ heaviest hitters from 1973 to 1980, but on the other hand, struggles daily to find a large enough market for his original material without having to sell his vintage guitars to record albums like his latest – and greatest – album, My Road. He refers to his work with the guys on this tour as, “going to a very advanced school.”

“You have people known for their own music, using their expertise to collaborate, at first, with The Band in 1976. Now on The Last Waltz 40 they’re not just playing the parts that were done in the movie, but they’re re-interpreting some of the songs too, and that’s the genius of Warren Haynes and Don Was who say, ‘No, don’t just learn what was played there note for note. Take the songs, and you can do something interesting with them, too.'”

“For instance, they do ‘Who Do You Love,’ instead of just slavishly using the Bo Diddley beat, or playing it the way Ronnie Hawkins did in the Last Waltz, they’ve brought up some very cool licks for it, and it really, really sounds good, and they took it somewhere. They made it really, really swampy sounding, and scary sounding which works for the lyrics of the song, very aware of making the songs fit the lyrics.”

“People on the new Last Waltz are being very creative with the song, ‘Mannish Boy.’ They’re not sticking to it slavishly, but they’re using their own musical knowledge and styles and creativity to make it a little bit different, and I’ve tried to do that, too. All this is being filmed in really, really high quality. They’re actually using drones to record some of it. Very, very advanced stuff.”

“For me personally, having been at both, it is a strikingly similar experience to be around experienced, well known and very talented musicians, who are known for their own music, coming together to work on music like they did for the (original) Last Waltz.”

Bob Margolin PressLast year on the release of, My Road, Margolin told me the Muddy Waters connection was a blessing and a curse. “There’s nothing you can do but deal with the duality of it. I’m not going to stop or abandon the incredible gift that Muddy gave me, and I’m not going to deny people who want to know about it. I really want to do that, but at the same time, and especially on this album, there are plenty of songs that have nothing to do with it.”

More recently, there have been people whispering in his ear that he should “bury” Muddy Waters. “I’m not gonna bury Muddy Waters,” he says today after having to forgo a gig on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise to do this tour. “As a matter of fact, I’m now my own manager again, and moving forward where I think it needs to go.”

The tour runs through February 4th, with stops in Atlanta, Nashville, Philadelphia, Albany and Washington D.C.

January 23 – Clearwater, FL @ Ruth Eckerd Hall
January 24 – Atlanta, GA @ Woodruff Arts Center
January 25 – Nashville, TN @ Ryman Auditorium
January 27 – Red Bank, NJ @ Count Basie Theatre (Jamey Johnson not scheduled to appear) SOLD OUT
January 28 – Boston, MA @ Orpheum Theatre (Jamey Johnson not scheduled to appear)
January 29 – Philadelphia, PA @ Verizon Hall/Kimmel Center
January 31 – Toronto, Canada @ Sony Centre (Jamey Johnson not scheduled to appear)
February 2 – Albany, NY @ Palace Theatre
February 3 – Westbury, NY @ Theatre at Westbury
February 4 – Washington DC @ The Theater at MGM National Harbor

Bob Margolin

The Last Waltz 40

 

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