Swampy swagger from Musselwhite’s return to the delta.
Release Date: 3rd June 2022
Label: Alligator Records
Format: CD / Vinyl / Digital
Soooooo disappointed we didn’t get around to this in a more timely fashion, Mr. M being one of the greats, a still standing, still blowing representative of the Chicago blues scene of the late 50s into early 60s. Blowing? Yup, he is a harp man, and still has more than plenty puff in his lungs to both ply his instrument and, here, sing as well. Maybe not as household a name as some of his forbears, but you may be familiar with his recent run of records with Ben Harper, who seems latterly to have taken on a God given in seeking out the stalwarts who influenced him in the first place, bringing them forward and with equal billing. Not that ol’ Charlie ever went away.
A brief bio: Musselwhite was born, as the title here proclaims, in Mississippi, moving to Chicago in search of work. An avid music fan, he soon found himself in the company of Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, all the greats, possibly unusually as he was skinny white kid. He forged a lasting friendship with John Lee Hooker, who could sense the boy had blues, and by 1965 he was cutting his first discs. He thence became part of that first revival, wherein other equivalently enraptured acolytes, Paul Butterfield, John Hammond, had the opportunity to spread the gospel of their elder, poorer torchbearers. A move to San Francisco had him celebrated as a cross-cultural King of the Blues, he already older and grizzlier than most of the city’s other musical families. Since then, perhaps 40 albums, myriad guest appearances and a 2010 inductee into the Blues Hall of Fame. And, at two years south of his four score, shows no sign of stopping, a recent move back to his birth state a veritable kick start to his inspiration.
A stripped back set, Musselwhite on harp, voice and six-string, he is backed by Ricky Martin, not that one, on drums and the stand up bass of Barry Bays, the trio open with a Musselwhite original, Blues Up The River. Harp and guitar kick off an infectious and timeless riff and rhythm, ahead of Musselwhite, his voice like smoke, exhales the lyric: ” I won’t drink muddy water, till I’ve had enough”. Nothing big or clever in the construction, the template as old and weathered as the sound. Tap your feet and pour another sippin’ whisky. Relax. Hobo Blues is in the same vein, a moan to life on the road. There are more holes than space in the weave of instruments, and each are as important as the sparse notes offered, with all credit to the production team of Gary Vincent and Henri Musselwhite, the performer’s wife and manager. The song ends with a throwaway chuckle that just demands respect. In Your Dakest Hour is sparer still, Musselwhite alone. A virtuoso performance; if anyone ever asks quite what the blues is, play ’em this. Stingaree revives the time told trope of my baby as a honey-bee, infecting new venom into the cliche, sounding for all the world like JJ Cale’s moodier grandad.
When The Frisco Left The Shed is a railtrack reverie in the mould, melody wise, of When The Levee Breaks, but all these songs, actually, come from the same bedrock of muscle memory and intuition. Never really owned, always borrowed. The harp hollers evocatively, a lonely whistle down the line. Remembering Big Joe is a guitar instrumental that shows he has as nimble a set of fingers as lips and tongue. A percussive tapping creeps in, of uncertain origin, but adds to the atmosphere of campfire desolation. Big Joe? Williams, I guess. Not so keen on the talking blues of The Dark, but, like all the songs, no chance of that souring things, it, and all of them, comes in under the 4 minute mark.
A nod then to his peers, with Charley Patton’s Pea Vine Blues and for his old buddy John Lee Hooker’s classic Crawling King Snake. The band are strapped back in for the former, and the image of a rickety train on rusty tracks is easily imaginable, as it lurches along, Martin’s drums all of a clatter. He then elects to honour Hooker initially alone, and it is a majestic version, the rhythm section latching on for later emphasis. For those familiar only with the version by Jimbo and the Doors, hear this as the spiritual link between that version and Hooker’s own inimitable tribal magic. Less rock, more roll, the threat more prevalent than the promise. The clang at the end is as final as a summed door.
Blues Gave Me A Ride has more of a country blues flavour, the guitar slurring at the edges. The bass walks just as it ought. The sort of tune that Dylan seems to regularly appropriate these days, if with less accomplished harmonica. Which sort of leads into the Not Dark Yet vibe of My Road Lies In Darkness, with a bleak and beleaguered vocal, over guitar that echoes the same. Cheerful it ain’t, if oddly uplifting. I have to say a solo performance by this artist would crack my bucket list wide open, yet I don’t see it happening over here any time soon. Maybe the likes of Cambridge Folk could lure him over. That dream is broken by the 4:4 lurch of Drifting From Town To Town, Bays and Martin doing what they do, the perfect accompanists for this fare.
A cover of Rank Strangers, the Stanley Brothers bluegrass lament, reminds us that Mississippi is a home of more than the blues, although, with this rendition, Musselwhite shows the kinship between the musics, drawn each from abject poverty, if across the racial divide. The gulp factor in the lyric remains as shocking as in the original. A chilling solo performance that will linger long after the listening. Which only leaves A Voice Foretold to lighten proceedings. And, of course, I jest, this being a fire and brimstone declaration of what lies beyond, from an1983 African-American musical, The Gospel of Colony’s, the story retold of Oedipus, if and as presented by a Pentecostal preacher in the deep south. Another gulp, the closing harp as gaunt a sound you’ll hear this year.
I love it when old guys, sorry, senior elder statesmen, come good, delivering career defining projects into their approaching dotage. I do not think it is wrong to compare this to the closing chapters of Johnny Cash or Leonard Cohen, however stylistically different. Perhaps John Lee Hooker, also playing on until he couldn’t, would be a better yardstick. But, then again, at only 78, Musselwhite is younger than Jagger.
Here’s a cooler than fuck solo performance of the opening track from Charlie Musselwhite…