This is November, 2004. A good month to have the blues, if you've been following the news. I just passed up the Dr. John, Chas Musselwhite, Shemekia Copeland tour. The weather was really bad, cold and wet, a big penetrating chilly blanket of air from a week overcast. The rain was pouring from buckets for days. That night in particular was arctic, overwhelmingly funky and everywhere outside seemed even darker than usual. So I stayed home, suspecting full well I would miss what would be the event of the year in these parts. I played "Six O'Clock Blues" too many times because that's the most recent one I have with Musselwhite on harp "The fire's getting closer, and the devil's turning up the heat." (At least somebody's warm)
Then I killed some more time and sorted though a pile of some silly old notes. My silly old notes are like a personalized shorthand made in poor penmanship. Nearly indeciperable even to me. Chickenscratches. Not only do I have a bunch of Musselwhite shows that I can remember clearly, I sometimes have a half page scrawl from dimly lit venues to help prompt my memory of a particular show. Like this concert a few years back.
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co
Tuesday night, June 24, 2003
It's true that California is the current center of the blues harmonica universe. That might help explain this evening. But what is it about some artists' ongoing appeal, like Charlie Musselwhite, who can sell out all the seats in a world class venue on a weeknight stopover in two shakes of a lamb's tail?
All, as in every single one. Man, you couldn't get a ticket for love nor money. "All sold out." Even marked in bold letters on the print ads that ran. There was not a single ticket to be had anywhere, not for love nor money. That means you, fool, are out of luck. Not only can you not beg, borrow, or steal a ticket, nobody can. That was me. A poor ticketless fool. Well, thanks to abundant grace, my anguished prayers were answered with a small miracle, a present from the benign side of the universe, and my name appeared on the list. And it was not just my name on the list, but the handsome doorman even smiled and said (loudly so many people behind me could easily hear), "Young lady, your name is at the very top of the list." Can you believe it? It happened!
Eavesdropping in line and elsewhere in the club: Some of the ticket holders had commuted hundreds of miles through the treacherous mountain passes coming down from old sawmill towns for this show. Others had traveled small two-lane roads, the battered and ignored by-ways that have the center line worn off. Others used the single laned ones, the kind that hardly appear on a map except as faint dotted lines, following the wind-y rivers up from distant dells and valleys -- They came from near and far, all to catch this show.
Yet however upscale the venue (and the Sierra Nevada is a bona fide class act), despite the anticipation of an evening's entertainment and for all the new and unknown faces in the crowd, there's an intimate, respect-your-neighbor feel about the place. Even in an upscale surrounding (think rich velvet, expansive granite stairs and mezzanines, golden oak banisters, and gleaming brass accents), an oasis of civility in a rather remote rural area, some blues gatherings always manage to come across like old home week. Where as a ticket holder, you're almost assured of running into neighbors you might not have seen for awhile, or encounter people you suspect are in some way kindred spirits, or fellow travelers on life's roads, and those are among the best experiences.
This hard traveling seemed fitting because people should make an effort to hear Charlie Musselwhite. He's a bona fide bluesman and a living link to those he learned from, the bluesmen of the past. He can tell you, if he chooses, some of the details that make the past momentarily come to life, right down to how Robert Nighthawk had his hair combed or how he sat at a table when holding an evening's informal court in a Chicago blues club. Or what John Lee Hooker would cook up for his friends who stopped by to visit. And, of course, some anecdotes about Mae Thornton.
In my life, I've had a few of the so-called blues concerts for tourists, the ones that are marked by "Mustang Sally", and a few of the other kind. The ones where guys wave bottles in their hands and shout "Boogie!" at inappropriate moments. This wasn't going to be like that, I could tell. Still, it was like going to any other blues club, I only carried the money I could afford to spend or lose.
Opening song. Now this was an interesting approach, not the usual at all. Charlie changing harps in the first song.
Now harp players always like imitating different sounds on their instruments -- we've all been surprised to hear the galloping horses, the baying hounds, and the locomotives chugging or wailing. All to my ear country sounds. In my life, I'd never heard this next one before and I wasn't hearing things. Musselwhite moved into some mysterious technique enhanced by a very special effect amped in a peculiar way that made his harp sound like country fiddle.
Then he switched into chromatic harp for a jazzy break.
He's got a bit more salt than pepper around the temples. He is easy going, soft spoken, confident in who he is and what he does.
"Got a million dollar dance floor waiting on you. Come on down."
new blues lyrics: "drinking cold coffee from paper cups"
For this show, the music was a little country tinged (this is the farm belt, after all)
The drummer: an energetic time keeper.
The guitarist: gifted
The bassplayer: lean and lanky, shaved pate and a goatee.
The band: a stripped down economic version of a Chicago electric blues band -- frontman, keyboardist, bass player, guitarist, drummer.
They played slinky shuffles
Charles' case of harps sat at the ready
You guessed it, the dance floor was full right away
The band illuminated under red stage lights
Charles introduced a song steeped in blues history: "Years ago, I heard Sonny Boy Williamson blowin the blues away at a place called Curly's Twist City. He was playing 'Help Me' and I thought that was a good song so I recorded it. And it's still a good tune."
long many bar instrumental lead-ins
pianist dropped away from his keyboards and picked up his red Gretsch to provide a rockabilly-tinged guitar break mid-tune
more than a little bit of rockabilly tinge to his playing, then sinister whispers of Link Wray and Wray's rapid strum style
the regular guitarist was not just energetic, but inspired and everything he touched sent a good jolt that evening.
charlie threw his shoulder back slightly to unkink like his back was bothering him, and the drummer launched into rolling toms.
"I said I love you once
I love you twice
I love you more
than red beans and rice"
"ashes to ashes and dust to dust …"
and then he mixed up a bunch of favorite blues clinchers between instrumental flights:
"I love you to the tip
I love you to the top
I love you more
Than a hog loves slop"
piano player went into rockabilly mode, a Jerry Lee (or Preacher Jack) pounding on the top end of the keyboard
"little red rooster
little brown hen
I ain't had none
in god knows when"
guitarist beautiful tone
this band played like a band
drummer perfect straight backed posture
once the blues juices began steepin, every song had a vivid line that painted a story picture
easy going good hearted Charlie Musselwhite
call and response between harp and guitar exchanging not just lines, but note for note
nice cheerful bounce to the tunes
musselwhite playing it straight up, played straight into the vocal mic just like Sonny Boy used to do
rolling and tumbling sound like a call to the Fillmore dance floor in the old days
"Lanky girl, man, she's long and tall
sleeps in the kitchen with her feet out in the hall"
lots of flowered batik and tropical shirts moving on the dance floor
"I haven't been drinking
it's the blues makes me drunk"
Charlie was selling and signing CDs throughout his entire break -- taking time with well wishers. Man, I hope he lists his sales through sound scan, because more than half the club went home with one.
I met the local dj
I met the dj who'd commuted down from redding (doing folk music show there for 20 years)
I met a station manager
I met a chatty fella who saw Charlie perform at a VFW hall in Nebraska 20 years ago. "Nebraska isn't anywhere," he explained. "Nebraska", he said again to emphasize back then. Back then, he said, you could drive eighty miles on a road and never even see another car. The dance hall was down in the basement. He worked as a gandy dancer on the railroad (the first I ever met). He said Charlie drove a big ol' black Cadillac that sounded like it had a glasspack.
I met the guy who married Janis Joplin's sister.
All the chickens have come home to roost.
Call for the second set
June had a cherry red drum kit
Charlie muted his harp and Junebug closed his eyes a bit for a slinky tom driven bounce
Then "Charlie's Old Highway 51 blues": "me and my baby take the highway side by side"
That pianist has crazy upswept hair and a muscular wide hand style of playing
lots of material, but lots of room of improvisation
limber loose jointed bass player
slinky swaying segmented rhythms
"Foro" a blues from Brazil "There is such a thing" Charlie pronounced
then a slow blues
showpiece harmonica echoing with vibrato
cozy cole showpiece
Show's over. That's all. It's a week night. The professionals in the audience left a bit early to hit the rack before starting up another day in the 80-100 hour work week. Soon the band were leaving the stage. The audience erupted for a good long time.
encore -- and then some more. they wouldn't let him go.
"that girl lives in the city
with the country way down in her heart"
guitarist big and heavy in a muscular way, his gold watch shining under the lights
when he curled over his guitar like Freddy King used to do and powered it out, that guitar suddenly looked so small then.
musical props to the central valley:
"she can't be a farmer's daughter
because she only does things half way
she hugged me and kissed me
til my fever reached a peak
then said hold on Charlie
I'll be back next week"
Charlie had an aluminum attache case full of harmonicas.
Did I notice? Did I miss it? Did he soak a harp in a glass of beer?
Charles Musselwhite harmonica (and guitar)
June Core drums
Kirk Fletcher guitar
Bob Welsh keyboards
Randy Bermudes bass
the band, the group, the groupies, and friends have been clued by the show's end. This damn small one-horse town. They know I am purporting to be a writer and might write about anything I even imagine I hear, and so they don't talk to me no more.
The drummer is polite and kind and says to me "Yes, I do a lot of tapping".
I don't care. When I read about Charlie getting another award (like I just did yesterday, the latest -- an honorarium in Spain), I sometimes laugh out loud it makes me so happy. And if I knew how to publish pictures on blogger, I'd show you a piece of paper with the set list.