The twin pillars of modern blues are Chester Burnett and McKinley Morganfield – better known to blues fans and the wider world as Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. Both artists had their origins in country blues but their intense creativity, charisma and force-of-nature blues power helped progress The Blues rapidly into its modern electric form.

Howlin’ Wolf was a giant in every way: physically huge and big-hearted, he seemed to enjoy putting the willies up his audience, albeit with a large spoonful of humour. Muddy Waters was almost the opposite in character, exuding a much cooler, more worldly and magisterial air – an almost regal presence in person and on record.

muddy poster

Muddy Water’s music – as well as hugely influencing Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and all the British Blues Boom bands (and all the bands they influenced) – continues to resonate through to today’s music, blues or otherwise. Its honesty, wit and dignity keeps it sounding as fresh as the first time Muddy and his rusty-throated Telecaster lit up Chicago in the early 1950s.

Sydney’s white-bread Double Bay is about as far as you can get from Muddy Waters’ Chicago. Its one saving grace, The Blue Beat jazz and blues venue hosted a tribute to Muddy – with pretty much the crème of Australian blues paying tribute. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

Johnny Cass – he of the cowboy hat and groovy Guild thru EC Fender – opened with ‘Blow Wind Blow’ – a nice ease in before the voodoo sex-brag of the Willie Dixon-penned ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ (“I got a black cat bone/I got a Mojo too/I got a John The Conquerer root/I’m gonna mess with you…” – chilling stuff).

But before we all got too hot and bothered, slide-guitarist Jeremy Edwards relaxed the groove with a pair of drummerless tunes – ‘Good Morning Little Schoolgirl’ and ‘Long Distance Call’ – the drummerless rhythm (bass player Tim Curnick providing a smooth subtle groove) adding a lonesome surrealist vibe to the music – Blue Beat was now a ghetto street in an eternal night of reverbed guitar. ‘Good Morning Little Schoolgirl’’s lyrics added to the dreamlike trip – “I’m going to buy me an airplane/And fly all over your town”.muddy2

Piano boogie-man and Oz blooz grandmaster, Don Hopkins gave us rockin’ full-band versions of ‘Rolling and Tumblin’’ et al and the women at the bar couldn’t keep still. His preaching style suited Muddy’s declamatory delivery down to the ground.

I don’t know if it was the man, the song or the full moon, but when Kevin Bennett took the stage to deliver his version (of the Allman Brothers’ version of Muddy’s version) of ‘Can’t Lose What You Never Had’, the whole thing went up a notch. That’s the magic of the Blues – the musicians are working with such slender elements that it only takes a little more spark and the thing can go through the roof (even in Double Bay). On ‘Why Are People Like That?’ (which is still a good question), the “guitar weaving” of Bennett and Jeremy Edwards was up there with that of Keef and Ron Wood.

Harp wizard Ian Collard gave us a loping and snake-hipped ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ – the sound of a blues harp played through a distorted guitar amp has to be one of the most marrow-chilling in all of music, and Collard does it so well. His long-time confrere, slide-master and Backslider Dom Turner gave us a winking ‘I Can’t Be Satisfied’ – cutting up the rhythm with switched-on drummer Curtis Martin – before leading the full band through ‘Country Blues’.

muddy1After the break the full band filled the stage for a gospel-style ‘Take Sick and Die’, Reverend Turner presiding over a choir of guitarists. The choir’s response (“It done broke down!”) to Don Hopkin’s call of ‘What’s The Matter With The Mill?’ was a little more raucous as befits the sexual double-and-triple entendres of the song.

And I realised that it has been not too much over 50 years since Muddy Waters sang ‘What’s The Matter With The Mill?’ to an audience who were close enough to farm life to understand the lyric. He was living history, mapping the lunatic forward hurtle of 20th Century life, astride an electric Fender just to keep up.

The Blue Beat crowd may or may not have related to the lyric, but on some level everyone relates to the Blues and they loved every note put out by this frankly remarkable line-up of musicians. For myself, I had a wide grin as I left Blue Beat – now, where do I find a John The Conquerer root in Double Bay at this time of night?

Photos by Katja Liebing

Published December 2012 on

  1. Cora says:

    I love Kevin Bennett. He’s the best singer I’ve ever heard & plays a mean guitar.

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