Music » Critics' Picks

Charlie Musselwhite

Friday, June 11; Blues on the Mississippi



In the hands of an ordinary mortal, a harmonica is just a couple of ounces of metal and wood, a simple folk instrument suitable for accompanying songs around the campfire or, in Hollywood's version, adding a note of poignancy to scenes of troops or cowboys waiting to meet their fate the night before the final battle or the big cattle drive.

But in the hands of a master like Charlie Musselwhite, the harmonica can be a highly expressive musical force, fully capable of conveying a range of complex emotions and the immediacies and intricacies of blues, jazz, gospel and R&B. Widely acknowledged as one of the modern giants of blues harp, Musselwhite, now 60, was born in Mississippi and raised in Memphis, making his way to Chicago in his late teens to look for work and be closer to his musical idols. Before long, he was sitting in with legends such as Little Walter, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf and working as a sideman with Big Joe Williams, J.B. Hutto, Big Walter Horton, Johnny Young, Robert Nighthawk and others. Alongside the work of such contemporaries as Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield, Musselwhite's records, beginning with his 1966 debut album Stand Back, helped attract a whole new audience of young, white rock fans to the blues.

These days Musselwhite is the elder statesman, with four decades of touring, dozens of recordings and twelve consecutive Handy Awards for Best Blues Instrumentalist, Harmonica under his belt. He's got a new CD, Sanctuary, which features a couple of collaborations with young soul-rocker Ben Harper, and a busy touring schedule that takes him all over the United States and Europe. Over the years, Musselwhite has gotten more meaningful music from a harmonica than just about any other living human, so if you have any interest at all in the instrument (and how its seeming limitations can be transcended by prodigious talent and authentic soul), you'll want to see this show.