Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Well reviewed by Mark Thompson

The Well
Charlie Musselwhite
Alligator Records
13 tracks/47:43

In a career that has spanned five decades, Charlie Musselwhite has had a number of recordings that capture the full extent of his talents. He is an acknowledged master of the blues harmonica and later in his career; he started to feature himself on guitar and vocals. His latest recording is a stunning collection that strips away all of the fat and allows listeners to really hone in on Musselwhite’s superb rendering of the blues tradition.

The all-original program serves as a testament to Musselwhite’s skill as a songwriter. Whether it’s the easy-going swing of “Dig the Pain” or the driving pulse of “Just You, Just Blues”, the songs find Charlie ruminating on various parts of his life, occasionally serving up advice or warnings from his hard-earned experiences. He gets expert backing from Dave Gonzales on guitar, John Bazz on bass and Stephen Hodges on drums. The trio format leaves plenty of room for the music to breathe and never overshadows Musselwhite’s half-spoken vocal style.

“Cook County Blues” is a shuffle with Gonzales on backing vocal that relates the unfortunate results of one of Musselwhite’s actual arrests with the leader laying down a brief but mesmerizing harp solo. On “Cadillac Women”, he relates his preference for money-grabbing women despite the cautionary warnings from his parents. The disc opens with another stark autobiographical number, “Rambler’s Blues” with Gonzales (Paladins, Hacienda Brothers) contributing a taut guitar part over a stomping beat from Hodges. The jaunty rhythm of the title cut belies Musselwhite’s tale of how he broke free of alcohol in response to the events that lead to the rescue of Jessica McClure from a Texas well. Mavis Staples lends a hand on “Sad and Beautiful World”, written in response to the murder of Musselwhite’s mother in 2005.

Switching to guitar, Musselwhite uses the slower pace of “Good Times” to reflect on the ups and downs of life. The eerie “Hoodoo Queen” combines references to Marie Laveau with swirling guitar licks and mournful harp tones. Musselwhite’s harp playing is spotlighted on two instrumentals. The brief “Sonny Payne Special” is a tribute to the famous DJ of the King Biscuit radio program, with the leader and Gonzales firing off impressive solos.

“Clarksdale Getaway” is all Musselwhite, a four-minute reminder that he has few peers on the harmonica, playing with power and the full-bodied tone he is known for. Musselwhite may not possess the strongest singing voice but he delivers a stirring performance on “Where Hwy 61 Runs”, his tribute to the home of the blues - the Mississippi delta.

You can be sure that this recording will garner its share of nominations this year for the various blues music awards. It is simply the best pure blues recording I have heard in quite awhile. No frills, no false sentiments – just honest songwriting combined with down-home rhythms and sterling musicianship. Every self-respecting blues fan should quickly find a place for The Well in their musical collection. It gets the highest recommendation – and will no doubt stand as a masterpiece in Musselwhite’s storied career!!!

Reviewed by Mark Thompson

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