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Earlier this year, MCA Records made a big media splash with the "news" that it had knighted itself lord-protector of the hallowed Chess Records catalogue that it owns. The pride of far-sighted Chicagoans Phil and Leonard Chess, the catalogue is the mother lode of rock n' roll and the blues. Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters are just a few of the musicians whose best material is part of the Chess catalogue. As defender of the Chess treasure, MCA served notice that it would back its resolve with lawsuits against any company that dared to reissue any part of the catalogue, whether it had a prior agreement with MCA or not. The motivation for all of this? To pay royalties to the long-suffering artists, of course. Too bad most of those artists are dead. Predictably, labels with long-standing reissue rights, like England's Charly Records, countersued. The entire mess is currently working its way toward an out-of-court settlement.

If it really wants to protect the integrity of the Chess catalogue, MCA should sue Paul Rodgers. Blessed with one of rock's most distinctive voices, Rodgers is the driving force behind Muddy Water Blues, a rocked-up collection of the tunes--most of them written by Willie Dixon and Sonny Boy Williamson--that Waters (real name: McKinley Morganfield) was best known for.

Featuring a rogue's gallery of guitar luminaries like Jeff Beck, Buddy Guy, Brian Setzer and Slash, Muddy Water Blues is a solid, listenable blues-rock album. Rodgers' smoky voice is still in fine form. And certain cuts, like Buddy Guy's acoustic take on Rodgers' own "Muddy Water Blues" and Slash's ripping lead on "The Hunter," have undeniable power.

The lurking "but" here is that this is not a Muddy Waters tribute; it's a continuation of Rodgers' own rock adventure. Only this time, Rodgers was smart enough to go back to the source and use Muddy's great songs instead of writing his own. Some purists might argue that artists who make rock recordings should bill them as rock recordings; don't drag the blues in for the purpose of authenticity. Beyond that, there is something sickening and disingenuous about arena-rock legends who suddenly get all giggly about how much they love the blues.

To be fair, Rodgers is not a blues neophyte. A peripheral member of the Bluesbreakers school of British blues reverence, Rodgers has always been a fan. Taking their cues from Cream and from the guitar work of Eric Clapton, the three groups Rodgers has fronted--Free, Bad Company and the Firm (in that order)--made their fame playing blues-riff rock. Some of it was classic, too. Tunes like Free's anthemic "All Right Now" and Bad Company's "Can't Get Enough" are genuine musical landmarks of the Seventies. But Rodgers' music was always a lot more rock than blues, just like what's on this album.

So is Muddy Water Blues another Free-Bad Company-Firm album? Rodgers doesn't think so.

"I know about the blues. I love the blues, and I have a lot of respect for it," he says by telephone from Chicago. "But at the same time, I don't think it belongs in a museum. It's a means of expression, and it lives today. I didn't try to re-create what Muddy had done. I had to reinterpret it in today's terms. And I'm not really ashamed of that. I'm really proud of what we've done."
The album began with Rodgers, drummer Jason Bonham and bassist Pino Palladino laying down basic tracks. Tapes of individual cuts were then sent to the guitar player Rodgers thought would be most appropriate for each track. Although the list of guitar players who worked on the album is impressive, there are two conspicuous omissions: Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton. Rodgers says that Page, with whom he formed the Firm in 1985, had scheduling conflicts that prevented him from working on the project. This seems an unlikely excuse when you consider that Slash, for example, laid down the guitar part for "The Hunter" during a three-day break in Guns N' Roses' nonstop touring schedule. Why Clapton, the man who single-handedly brought traditional blues and rock together, isn't part of this project is unclear. Rodgers' explanation is nothing short of bizarre.

"Clapton wouldn't have been an immediate choice of mine," Rodgers says, "because he's as much a singer as a guitar player."
The real proof that this is a rock and not a blues project is the touring band's live set. Fronted by Rodgers and former Santana-Journey guitar wonder Neal Schon, the group's set is a hodgepodge of old and new material that Rodgers claims "has a logic in the madness." At the moment, chestnuts like Free's "All Right Now" and Bad Company's "Feel Like Making Love" sit next to tunes from Muddy Water Blues. Schon even gets into the anything-goes act with a cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady." Mercifully, no Journey material has crept in yet.

For fans of Rodgers' most enduring legacy, Bad Company, it will be a pleasure to hear Rodgers sing the band's old standards. His replacements in the "new" Bad Company, the one that diehard drummer Simon Kirke (the only original member left) keeps alive as a cash cow, can't begin to equal Rodgers' tone and gift for phrasing. When asked about the hollow shell of his old band, Rodgers is diplomatic. He says what he's heard by the group isn't half-bad.

"It feels to me like they have a new lease on life," he says. "There's a lot more energy and enthusiasm there."
Rodgers also has more vim and vigor these days. Although he's been involved in small projects like the "Guitar Legends" tour with former Queen guitarist Brian May, he says he really hasn't been on a full-scale tour in seven years. He and Schon are unsure whether the group that was formed for this tour will become a real band. The other musicians in the band are Richie Hayward of Little Feat on drums and Todd Jensen of Hardline on bass. So far, Rodgers says he's inclined to give it a try.

"I may end up doing a solo record with this band," he says. "But right now, we're just out here keeping an open mind and having a ball.

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Robert Baird