Music and ambiance collided to create a 1940s, deep South, juke-joint aura as The Muddy Waters Tribute Band played at Wolf Trap Nov. 13.
The venue, the Wolf Trap’s “Barn”, is a gutted, rustic barn equipped with a simple stage.
The stripped-down electric blues of Waters’ former bandmates seemed at home here. Drawling out lyrics through a filter of gentle humor, the aging band members, including legendary 83-year-old piano player Pinetop Perkins, showed the marks of a slowly-dying musical generation.
The band, formed in 1983 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Waters’ death, took the stage with a mission: to preserve Waters’ legacy by playing his music.
The set opened with a jumpy instrumental, immediately revealing the distinct signature styles of the band’s two electric guitarists.
The older Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson played with staccato accents, while the middle-aged Steady Roblin’ Bob Margolin employed the slick-finger approach that signifies a younger generation of progressive blues musicians.
Tearing though the first half of their set, both guitarists swapped vocals with drummer “Willie Big Eyes” Smith. Margolin showed off his beautiful guitar licks on trademark blues songs. Vocals were pitted against Jerry Portnoy’s powerful harmonica work.
The seventh song brought Perkins and his devious style to the piano seat. Clad in electric blue pants and a red and white coat, he was greeted with tremendous applause as he initiated a musical conversation with long-time bandmate Margolin.
Margolin’s boisterous body language fused with the band’s joy in playing for an encouraging audience to create an intimacy unparalleled by other genres of live music.
After intermission, which found Margolin mingling with old friends in the crowd, the band broke into a version of the classically lewd “I’m Ready.” A few songs later, the reluctant electric bassist Calvin “Fuzz” Jones approached the microphone to lead Howlin’ Wolfs “Hip Shakin’ Mama” with a surprisingly powerful voice.
As the band neared the end of the second set, Perkins again assumed his piano throne and rattled off the timeless “Got My Mojo Working,” which ignited a call and response between Perkins and the chorus of bandmates. The band finished the show with an encore of “Sweet Home Chicago,” honoring the city that served as Waters’ workshop in transforming the blues from an acoustic to electric medium.