BY MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
TRAVERSE CITY — Bob Margolin can still recall the seven years he played with blues legend Muddy Waters.
"It was certainly the music thrill of my life to be on stage with Muddy because he was my favorite blues musician, or any musician, before I met him," said Margolin, who played a couple hundred gigs a year with Waters from 1973 to 1980 and who appears with him in the 1978 film, "The Last Waltz."
"I got to learn like an apprentice to a master instead of like the modern way people learn to play today. It was an experience I carry with me."
Now Margolin is performing in a tribute to Waters and fellow blues legend Howlin' Wolf.
Blues at the Crossroads II: Muddy & The Wolf showcases classics of the two friends and rivals, performed by the Fabulous Thunderbirds featuring Kim Wilson — with Margolin, James Cotton, Jody Williams and Tinsley Ellis. The "Live at the Opera House" show comes to the City Opera House at 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 8.
"The tour is a tribute to the great music of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf and what they left behind," said tour co-producer Ron Hausfeld. "They had such an influence over rock and American music. This is American, this is ours. They were like blues gods. It's something we don't want to leave behind."
Considered the main inspiration behind the 1960s "British blues explosion" and bluesmen like Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, John Mayall and Eric Clapton, Waters and Howlin' Wolf were among the greatest artists to record for Chicago's Chess Records. In a bid for the "father of modern Chicago Blues" title, each tried to top the other, resulting in the creation of now-classic hits like "Spoonful," "Mannish Boy," "Rolling Stone" and "Smokestack Lightning."
Hausfeld said the tour has a genuine feel since many of the featured musicians played with the two greats.
"They've all been there and the same with Kim," said Hausfeld, of the top-billed performers and Thunderbirds harmonica virtuoso Kim Wilson, who performed at the 35th Annual Kennedy Center Honors in December. "James Cotton played with Howlin' Wolf, Jody Williams played with Chess Records and Howlin' Wolf, and Bob Margolin played with Muddy Waters. Muddy Waters thought Kim was one of the best harp players since Little Walter."
Together Wilson, Margolin, Cotton, Williams and Ellis are winners of every major blues award from the Grammys to the Annual Blues Music Awards (formerly the W.C. Handy Blues Awards), and have been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and the Smithsonian Institute.
Backed by Texas-based veteran blues rockers the Thunderbirds, they'll show why they're deserving of the recognition before heading to Ann Arbor and the Michigan Theater Feb. 9.
Though Margolin now tours worldwide with bands including his own All-Star Blues Jam, he said he still feels Muddy Waters on the bandstand beside him.
"Sometimes he smiles at me and sometimes he doesn't, but I try to do my best for him," he said.
The show — a follow-up to the 2011 Blues at the Crossroads tour, a tribute to Robert Johnson — is being copresented by Porterhouse Productions and the Traverse City Winter Microbrew & Music Festival, in conjunction with the festival's Craft Brew Week.
Tickets are $28 and $43, plus fees, at the City Opera House box office, 941-8082, or cityoperahouse.org.