I’ve been an avid follower of Charlie Musselwhite since his recording of “Cristo Redentor” on his “Tennessee Woman” album on Vanguard changed my life in 1969. Charlie has always had a unique sound and approach to the harmonica; his rhythms and his notes alway seem to be sliding in and out of time and space, not so much music as direct, moaning expressions of powerful, inchoate emotion.
A few months ago I checked out Charlie Musselwhite’s “In My Time,” a terrific studio record recorded in the early 1990s. I asked around for a recommendation for something more recent by Charlie, and I was advised by a player named Tall Paul to check out Charlie’s 2007 live recording from Seattle’s Triple Door, “Rough Dried.” It was good advice.
“Rough Dried” starts with a bang as the band kicks into a John Lee Hooker inspired boogie, “River Hip Mama.” Charlie’s vocals and harmonica are in outstanding from from the first note, and he and the rest of the band burn the groove to the ground. Here and elsewhere on the record, drummer June Core drives the band relentlessly–at one point he throws the song into overdrive with nothing more than a series of powerful snare hits delivered precisely on the backbeat. Guitarist Kid Andersen delivers plenty of fireworks in his solos and rock-steady accompaniment behind Charlie. Bassist Randy Bermudes is solid and steady without drawing attention to himself, as usual for Charlie’s bands.
The record continues with 11 more outstanding performances, concluding with Charlie’s arrangement of his signature piece, Duke Pearson’s “Cristo Redentor.” Otherwise, the songs are mostly Charlie’s. His lyrics are as idiosyncratic as his vocals, which is to say that they’re a little quirky but they do the job, and the vocal performances are as impassioned as anything Charlie’s done to date. The grooves are a catalog of Chicago styles, and Charlie works each song deliberately, switching harmonicas frequently in mid-song to change the sound and feel of the harp lines. Harmonica players, as always, will find a treasure trove of harmonica technique and styles in these songs.
The recorded sound is excellent, with every member of the band coming through loud and clear in a potent, tough mix. It’s obvious, comparing this record to “In My Time” and other Musselwhite records in my collection, that Musselwhite records his studio records the way he recorded this one: with the whole band playing the tunes live from start to finish. That’s nothing out of the ordinary for a blues band, of course. It merely emphasizes the point that with Charlie, what you’re hearing at every moment on every record is the sound of real people playing together. The live audience and the energy the audience imparts to the band is the difference on this record.
“Rough Dried” can be purchased direct from Charlie at his website store. Buyers have the option of purchasing the album in download form for $15, or the download plus a CD autographed by Charlie for $20. I chose the second option, and the extra $5 is a reasonable price to pay for the CD with Charlie’s autograph, especially if you want the extra information that the CD jacket provides. Either buy will put an outstanding performance by a modern blues master in your hands.