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September 2010

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Charlie Musselwhite
The Well
Alligator Records

Charlie Musselwhite

Come experience the blues dripping off reeds.

With The Well, Charlie Musselwhite’s return to Alligator Records  -- where he recorded three successful albums in the early 1990s -- is his first recording where he wrote every track on the album. In addition to re-establishing himself on Alligator, the harmonica master, vocalist, songwriter, and guitarist also reconstructs himself as a traditional blues artist on The Well. The music here is quite different from the contemporary sounds he produced on his two previous discs on RealWorld Records.

Yes, those trademark spoken-like vocals of Musselwhite’s abound on this 48-minute disc. You will also hear his Deep South influences (especially in his traditional acoustic guitar), probing and jazz-influenced harmonica, and overall laid-back sensibility. The band was brought together by producer Chris Goldsmith. The Well was recorded in Los Angeles with guitarist Dave Gonzales (Paladins, Hacienda Brothers), bassist John Bazz (The Blasters), and drummer Stephen Hodges (Tom Waits, Mavis Staples).

“Rambler’s Blues” kicks things off. Melodically it sounds like Muddy Waters’ “You Need Love.” However, the exclusive lyrics reveal Musselwhite’s passion to roam and ramble. The title track sounds like it could have come from the Delta Hardware recording sessions, but the song evolved naturally during the sessions for The Well. It’s a rockin’ number with a sound that is a throwback to the ’50s. The song reveals the inspiration which provided Musselwhite the courage to be brave and face his alcohol addiction.

In December 2005, Musselwhite’s mother was murdered in her Memphis home. “Sad and Beautiful World” comes from the things he wanted to say after that tragic event. The highly-emotional song mixes a very sweet melody with tragic lyrics. The harp shares the anguish of the lyrics. With special guest and longtime friend, Mavis Staples, Charlie sings the tragic yet uplifting words, “Blues heal what’s been torn apart/Let the river heal my heart.”

"Hoodoo Queen" sounds mysterious and spooky. It reveals the harp blower’s fascination with Marie Laveau, the Hoodoo Queen. Like a good novel, this song takes some time, three minutes in particular, to develop. “Cook County Blues” features southern country-styled fast finger guitar picking, which is ironic given the song, is about being arrested in the northern city of Chicago.

With a full and big sounding guitar, rich harp, and thumping upright bass, “Dig The Pain” demonstrates the sound of West Coast jump/swing music. You also hear that sound, which combines ’50s Chicago blues with post-War Texas blues on the instrumental “Sonny Payne Special.” “Just You, Just Blues” contains one of those ultra-catchy grooves that naturally gets imbedded in your memory. Musselwhite has created such grooves time again throughout his almost 50-year career, most recently on “Church Is Out” from Delta Hardware. This song isn’t as rocking as church but the potent rhythm, masterful guitar, and soaring harp are the best the CD has to offer.

Throughout, the harp skitters with emotion. Musselwhite plays his sensational mouth organ like a freewheeling piano man barreling up and down the 88s, and he possesses the innate ability to use his wistful Mississippi saxophone to carry your troubles away like a brisk wind. As a bonus, Musselwhite performs guitar on a couple tracks which sound like they came straight from the front porch of a Mississippi tin shack.

With 30 solo albums to his credit, Musselwhite has also appeared on numerous recordings as a featured player with Tom Waits, Eddie Vedder, Ben Harper, John Lee Hooker, Bonnie Raitt, Blind Boys Of Alabama, INXS, and most recently, Cyndi Lauper. He was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Blues Hall Of Fame in 2010, has been nominated for six Grammy Awards and has won 23 Blues Music Awards.

Most of the 13 songs on The Well are simple and basic blues tunes. What stand out the most are the southern themes and southern rhythms. All the songs are autobiographical and reflect plenty of Musselwhite’s remarkable past. In reflecting on the past, it sets the stage for what may lay ahead for Musselwhite which is a deep well of treasured music.

--- Tim Holek


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