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`WIDE RIVER’ HITS MAINSTREAM; `MUDDY WATER’ TARGETS BLUES

SHARE `WIDE RIVER’ HITS MAINSTREAM; `MUDDY WATER’ TARGETS BLUES

So what exactly is the "pompetus of love," anyway? The cryptic phrase, which first appeared on Steve Miller's 1973 "The Joker," crops up again on his just-released "Wide River," as does the self-descriptive moniker "Gangster of Love."

Could it mean that Miller has his sights set on recapturing the magic that first propelled the long-time blues musician to the forefront of pop radio in the mid-1970s with tunes like "Fly Like an Eagle," "Take the Money and Run" and "Jet Airliner," among others?Or could it be that Miller has spent the five years since the release of "Born 2B Blue" looking at past glories?

Judging from the creative personality of "Wide River," the answer probably lies somewhere in between. It sounds a lot like "Book of Dreams" or "Fly Like an Eagle," with a dash of 1986's "Living in the 20th Century" thrown in for a contemporary flavor.

In other words, "Wide River" veers decidedly toward mainstream pop and away from the roots blues closer to the Space Cowboy's heart. It's a move likely to appeal to fans of classic-rock radio (Miller's greatest hits package has sold more than 6 million copies), but one that blues afficionados who have now championed Miller for the past three decades will smugly reject.

While new tunes like "Wide River" and "Midnight Train" are undeniably infectious pop ditties, Miller has not eschewed the blues altogether. He's just cloaked bluesy tunes like "Blue Eyes," "Circle of Fire" and "Lost in Your Eyes" in a radio-friendly package that should, but won't, appeal to both of his fanatical constituencies.

Miller says "Wide River" is "honestly the best recording I've ever made," but in actuality it never quite reaches that level. Sure, it is pleasant to listen to. Some of the tunes rank with Miller's best ("Circle of Fire" is Miller at his very best).

But "Wide River" will likely take its place in the Miller catalog as a "good" recording that reflects more his durability than his evolving creativity.

While blues fans will likely be singing the blues over Miller's "Wide River," they might find what they are looking for in Paul Rodgers' "Muddy Water Blues," a tribute to the late-great McKinley Morganfield.

"Muddy Water Blues" presents 15 tunes, 13 of them Muddy Waters classics delivered with Rodgers' classic vocals and accompanied by a host of rock guitarists whose adulation of the blues is legendary: David Gilmour (Pink Floyd), Brian Setzer (the Stray Cats), Neal Schon (Journey), Trevor Rabin (Yes), Richie Sambora (Bon Jovi), Slash (Guns 'N Roses), Buddy Guy, Brian May (Queen), Steve Miller and Jeff Beck.

While most "tribute" albums are well-intentioned, far fewer preserve creative integrity of the original artists while still offering fresh interpretations ("Folkways: A Tribute to Woody Guthrie" is the best that comes to mind).

"Muddy Water Blues" now takes its place among the great tribute albums. And it becomes crystal-clear there is no better voice to conjure up the ghostly spirit of Muddy Waters than Paul Rodgers, who has long championed the British blues-rock movement through his bands Free, Bad Company, the Firm and the Law.

Rodgers moves effortlessly through classics like "Good Morning Little School Girl," "I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man" and "Born Under a Bad Sign," while his rock covers of lesser-known tunes like "Louisiana Blues" and "The Hunter" are inspiring.

Virtually all tunes selected by Rodgers emphasize the persistent influence of Muddy Waters' music on today's rock 'n' roll. While blues purists may find Rodgers' interpretations a bit too hard for their tastes, "Muddy Water Blues" is occasionally brilliant and always fascinating.

The only song here not written by Muddy Waters is Rodgers' own "Muddy Water Blues," a worshipful tune offered up twice, first as an acoustic tune with Buddy Guy delivering the guitar licks and then an electric-guitar version with Neal Schon handling the guitar chores. It's a song Muddy Waters would have written if he had lived long enough.

Missing from the cadre of guitarists paying tribute to Muddy Waters is Rodgers' former band-mate (the Firm) and Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page. And considering that Led Zeppelin championed the music of Muddy Waters more than any other, the omission is glaring.

Omissions aside, "Muddy Water Blues" is a blues dream come true. And it's a must-have for any serious collector of the blues.