(This was published in Melbourne’s Sunday Herald Sun in 2000, kicking off a series called “Religious Experiences – The Gig That Changed My Life”. The column ran for a few years and featured many fans, musicians and music scene heroes. My thanks to Kevin Hill for the use of his very fine photograph of Muddy with Mojo Buford!)
Muddy Waters, Christchurch Town Hall, New Zealand, 1973
The great gigs, those mind-shredding live music events, are moving experiences. KENNY WEIR, introducing a new column, testifies they can also be profoundly spiritual and revealing occasions
PERHAPS it was the blunt audacity that let me get away with it.
After all, I was meant to be knuckling down for serious study and “cramming” for exams that were not only to prepare me for working life, but also ascertain what kind of shape that life might take.
Small wonder, then, my parents expressed dismay when I calmly revealed I not only had booked a ticket for a blues show in Christchurch, hundreds of kilometres north of our Dunedin home, but also a return bus fare.
Worse, from their point of view, this outrageous excursion would entail taking two days off school.
So embroiled was I in the excitement of adventure, it was only years later that I came to understand just how muted my folks’ objections had been.
Little did any of us know that what I was to witness, hear and experience at that show was to have everlasting and monumental repercussions that made my subsequent dismal academic record appear of no consequence whatsoever.
By 1973, I was already a crazed music fan, ears glued to the radio at every opportunity.
But I had grown tired of the poppery of the Beatles and such like and was on the prowl for tougher and more soulful sounds.
That meant the wild guitar of Jimi Hendrix and the gritty R&B of such outfits as the Animals.
However, as I set forth for Christchurch, the blues remained an enigma.
It was a few years before I subscribed to the British magazine, Blues Unlimited, and my blues collection comprised one album apiece by John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Muddy Waters then was no more than a name – but I knew, beyond doubt, that he was very, very cool.
But even that certainty in no way prepared me for music so amazing, so swinging, so full of heart and soul. So, well, in the groove.
And that was even before “The Man” swept on to the stage – the band of guitarists Sammy Lawhorn and Pee Wee Madison, harmonica man “Mojo” Buford, pianist “Pinetop” Perkins, drummer Willie “Big Eye” Smith and bassist Calvin “Fuzzy” Jones were hipness incarnate.
As for Muddy, in 1973 it was only a handful of years earlier that he was the reigning king of the Chicago blues clubs – the Hoochie Coochie Man lauded for marrying the gutbucket blues of the Delta with the grit and electricity of the urban north.
At the top of his game, he had a princely grace and dignity.
His slide guitar was full of bite and menace, with a sense of style and taste of which hysterical, bombastic latter-day practitioners of that particular style can only dream.
Had I been able to articulate my thoughts amid that all-consuming blues fire, they might have run thus: “Right – this is what I’m gonna do with the rest of my life.”
And – as writer, broadcaster, proselytiser and zealot – that is how it’s been.
What a trip.
Grateful Dead, Winterland, San Francisco, 1977
Flamin’ Groovies, Roundhouse, London, 1978
Solomon Burke, New Orleans Municipal Auditorium, 1994