Musselwhite Blasts Bull Run

By Matthew MacDonald
July 2015

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Charlie Musselwhite played to a sold out house at The Bull Run in Shirley this past April 29th. The harmonica ace and his three band mates were in top form as they rolled through a 12-song set divided almost evenly between numbers from his just released CD, I Ain’t Lyin’… (reviewed in this issue) and 2012’s Juke Joint Chapel.

The man himself looked sharp, with slicked back silver hair, leather jacket, two tone button down shirt, and what looked like an updated, less sticker adorned aluminum briefcase on a chair next to where he stood at center stage. He sounded even sharper, his warm, semi-relaxed vocals complementing his powerful and wide ranging playing. Pulling different harps from his open case and playing through a bullet mic and a big tube amp, his unique sound came through loud and very clear on the room’s excellent PA system.

Unlike many blues harp players, Musselwhite consistently uses most of the ten holes of the instrument as he winds his way through solos employing different trills, octaves, arpeggios, and a whole lot of bends. These techniques, along with many less tangible things, help him to create something that all of the greats have: a sound instantly recognizable as his own.

Musselwhite has played alongside some outstanding guitarists over the years and, for those in his own band, he gives lots of room. On this evening, New Englander Matt Stubbs used all of that space and his very creative sense of improvisation to play crowd pleasing solos that were always sensitive to the tunes themselves: in short, he made everything better. This became very clear from his solo on the night’s second song, “As The Crow Flies” and never really let up. As the lone guitarist playing alongside Musselwhite’s harmonica, he fits right in and excels.

The rhythm section, comprised of June Core on drums and Scott Bomar on bass, kept things moving along through shuffles, rumbas, and everything else. Memphis native Bomar, though not on either of the last two albums, has worked together with Musselwhite before, notably on the score for the film Black Snake Moan, which he composed. On the classic “Strange Land,” his bass line added a lot, even without taking a solo.

June Core is the longest serving member of the band and sounds like it. Confident and comfortable protecting the beat, he brings his own inventiveness to the music. On “My Kind Of Gal,” a song built on the rhythm guitar line from Little Walter’s “It Ain’t Right” and featuring some hard driving improvisation from both lead instruments, Core went on a long but understated drum break consisting, in large part, of rim shot variations that, without looking, became a tap dancer moving across a hardwood floor on metal plated shoes. It was, for me, the highlight of the highlight song of the night; one in which everybody in the band had it dialed in and – judging from the reaction during and afterwards – everyone in the audience knew it.

There was a feeling of welcoming familiarity to everything. Charlie would drop in good humored observations and bemused anecdotes between songs. Halfway through the show, he talked about hanging out with the brilliant but vastly under-appreciated Robert Nighthawk as he strapped on an electric guitar and then played his rendition of “Crying Won’t Help You.” It was the only song not from either one of the last two albums and, aside from showing off Charlie’s slide guitar skills, it demonstrated something else: the personal nature of the music… not just in the songs themselves but in the way things happen with it. Charlie had personal access to and learned from Robert and many others and he now makes himself as accessible as he can to those who are interested in learning from him.

Some in the crowd may have picked up stuff from the show, or by asking Charlie questions afterwards, or maybe by checking out some of his YouTube videos. Others, hearing him play a Nighthawk song, perhaps went home and sought him out for a listen and found something brand new to their ears. There’s a human connection.

At one point, early on, Charlie shaded his eyes with his hand and surveyed the room. “Have I been here before? It feels like it.” For his appreciative audience at The Bull Run, it must have felt the same way… for all the right reasons.

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