Musselwhite concert review - LONG

Saw Charlie Musselwhite in Edmonton on Saturday night, 
Dec.6 (thanks again, Giglist!).  I hadn't been sure what to 
expect since the notice had made no mention of a band, one 
way or the other, but I have to admit to a little disappointment 
when he stepped out on stage alone with an acoustic guitar in 
hand.  This was Charlie Musselwhite though, so I figured he 
know what he was doing . 

Musselwhite opened with about five numbers off a new solo 
CD ("Darkest Hour"); all originals but thoroughly grounded 
in blues tradition; in fact, if you hadn't been told otherwise, 
you would assume they'd been lifted from the common 
repertoire.  Like much else in blues, this type of song-writing 
is not as easy as it looks, and while often attempted, rarely 
succeeds as convincingly as in this instance.  

Charlie's finger-picking is "busy" but tasteful and controlled, 
in style somewhere between the Delta and Chicago.  In this 
solo mode, he sings in a far more subdued manner than 
we've come to know from his previous recordings (and 
performances, presumably), and so is able to give more 
nuanced vocal expression.  Occasionally the lyrical content 
and vocal delivery would combine in a moment of - if I 
dare say it in relation to a hard-bitten bluesman - poignant 
tenderness.  These seemed almost emotional slips; within a 
beat or two we would be safely back in the hard-boiled 

For most of these numbers, Musselwhite played harmonica 
in the rack, second position.  His solos here did the job, of 
course, but unlike his singing, were somewhat lacking in 
feeling to my ear, like the playing of an organist who takes 
a spell at the piano and seems insensitive to the different 
expressive possibilities offered by that instrument's 
keyboard.  I sensed Musselwhite was not completely at 
ease playing with the rack, and in fact he remarked on 
its awkwardness.  Now for all I know he's been using 
a rack since he was in short pants,and perhaps a bolt 
was slipping loose, or perhaps he just wasn't 
quite warmed up at that point .

It was unfortunate that the warm-up act had consisted 
of a duo performing blues and bluesy numbers with 
acoustic guitars ("No Guff", a Canadian act).  Proficient 
as they were, Musselwhite certainly did not "suffer by 
comparison", but his opening segment would have been 
more effective if its basic sound had been in greater 
contrast to that of the preceding act.  Much as I support 
acoustic music, I was glad when he put his guitar aside 
and called out an accompanist (named Fletcher) with 
an electric. 

The rest of the evening was more than I had dared hope 
for.  Fletcher played with a clean restrained tone that 
provided an ideal background for Musselwhite's 
down-and-dirty overdriven Chicago harp sound.  
The Alberta Provincial Museum Theatre is a small 
room with great acoustics, and the volume was kept 
to a comfortable level (no earplugs required!), so the 
audience had the rare treat of being able to hear every 
breath and resonance from the master's harp.  Whether 
or not Musselwhite found this inspiring, he certainly 
made use of the full dynamic range from whisper to 
wail, with many of his more subtle melodic ventures 
taking the form of soft-spoken after-thoughts, so to 
speak, at the tail-end of lines.  His dynamics, by the 
way, seemed to come entirely from playing technique 
rather than from external "volume control".

In most numbers, Musselwhite changed harps at least 
once, often two or three times, and he was clearly as 
comfortable - i.e., as bluesy - in one position as 
another.  I was struck by his way of surmounting 
the limitations of some positions by incorporating 
major-scale (non-blues-scale) tones and intervals 
into his solos without compromising the blues feel. 

Fletcher got a break in every number, and while he 
would strut his considerable stuff, Musselwhite 
would provide an accompaniment consisting of 
muted lines played on the lower end - but no 
chugging.  It was a lesson in itself to hear how 
much space he could fill in this manner.  Only 
on "Help Me" did he play the chords behind 
Fletcher's solo; this was one of the few times 
he picked up the chromatic. 

I lost track of the time, but I can say that 
Musselwhite played a good long set, and, 
after an encore consisting of a couple of 
solid numbers, his audience seemed well-satisfied.  
Sales of the new CD were brisk in the lobby, and 
Musselwhite hung around signing autographs and 
chatting.  I told him that I had driven five hours
through blizzards and freezing rain to get to his 
show, and it was well worth it.  He said he hoped 
I'd have better weather on the drive back.

As even my seventeen-year-old son had to concede, 
"That guy was pretty good."

- - thurg

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