Blues Hall Of Fame Tour at Carolina Theatre (Durham, NC – Oct 18, 2014)
Since its inception in 1980, the Blues Hall of Fame hasn’t been much more than a list of venerable buesmen. But, by 2015, Memphis will provide a home in which to present their living treasures and revere the ones who have left us. Until then, fans in selected parts of the country have been lucky enough to get a taste of some of the Hall’s living legends up close with 2011 inductee John Hammond, ’06’s James Cotton and 2010’s Charlie Musselwhite on the Blues Hall of Fame tour.
Any one of these guys still has enough juice and power to light up a stage by themselves, but grouped together, they produce enough wattage to blow audiences out of their seats from coast to coast.
Sunday night in Durham, both singly and combined, the trio demonstrated their acoustic and electric power to a substantial crowd of fans who acted like they were in church: quietly savoring the message as the holy blues spirit washed over them.
John Hammond always seems like he’s consumed by the blues. It’s not so much a performance as it is a casting out of demons, conjuring spirits of departed bluesmen, and letting them writhe and romp onstage once again. Introducing Lightning Slim’s “Mean Old Lonesome Train,” Hammond reminisced about listening to WLAC, the powerful Nashville radio station that introduced “race records” in the ’50s and ’60s to a young generation of white listeners who developed a love for r&b and blues by listening to artists like Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, Lonesome Sundown, and Slim. Switching to National Steel, he invoked the demeanor and spirit of Howling Wolf for a gritty version of Wolf’s Oldsmobile ode, “My Mind Is Ramblin’,” warning people off the road when Wolf is at the wheel:
I’ve got me a Rocket Oldsmobile
My Rocket can take the road
I don’t want nobody
To even get in my way.
Since he was in Durham, home of the Piedmont blues, it was fitting that Hammond pay homage to a local practitioner of that genre, Blind Boy Fuller, by performing Fuller’s version of Robert Johnson’s “Come On Into My Kitchen,” punctuated with twang and plunks more appropriate for banjo than National Steel.
Hammond’s originals sound as authentic as the classics he covers. “You Know That’s Cold” is a rattly foot-stomper that had Hammond’s slide coming so far up the neck that it almost hit his strumming hand.
After putting up a couple more classics by Blind Boy McTell and Little Walter, James Cotton came out for a brief, two-song set before intermission. Although he limped out, leaning heavily on a cane, remaining seated during his performance, Cotton’s harp sounded as loud and proud as ever, notes spilling from it like a waterfall. Hammond is the engineer driving this locomotive with relentless chugging guitar, with Cotton as fireman, stoking the firebox with heaping shovelfuls of fiery harp. The duo tackled Muddy’s “Sail On,” and Cotton went from being a sideman to being the main man, but still dancing skilfully around Hammond’s fluid guitar. The two old masters never stepped on one another’s toes.
“I’ve known these men 50 years,” Charlie Musselwhite said of his co -conspirators at the top of his set with his trio. He gave Hammond and Cotton both a shot with his band later on, but first he did a set with his group: guitarist Matt Stubbs, drummer June Core and bassist Mike Phillips, leading off with Eddie Taylor’s “Bad Boy,” from his 2013 release Juke Joint Chapel.
Confident and relaxed, trim and fit, clad all in black, Musselwhite looked like a rocker who’s aged well. He looked like he was really enjoying himself, telling the crowd that he’s discovered a way for fans to enjoy the music he’s presenting in the privacy of their own home. All they had to do was take one of the CDs he was holding up with them when they went home.
Musselwhite’s band is a powerful, versatile unit, blending Texas bar-band boogie and juke joint stomp. Guitarist Matt Stubbs’ hard rock drive adds an extra dimension to Mussselwhite’s fluid reed work. The 70-year-old Musselwhite plays like a man half his age, running up and down the reeds like a marathoner. Stubs threw out a bucket full of twang befitting a Bakersfield bar band and Musselwhite rolled along by his side like a greased roller coaster, swooping up and down effortlessly.
“Here’s a real, real old folk song we just made up this afternoon,” Musselwhite said, introducing “Good Blues Tonight,” a funky samba with a Bo Diddley backbeat, Stubbs’ shimmery guitar draped around the melody. He brought Hammond back out, and after a warm hug, Hammond strapped on an electric guitar for “Sugar Mama.” Musselwhie blew big and rough locomotive wails, thick enough to lean against.
Muddy Waters’ “I’m Ready” was a chromatic showpiece for Musselwhite until Stubbs took over, tossing out taut, barbed wire guitar licks. You could hear Cotton before you saw him, his great harp whoops spreading out in front of him like breaking waves, as he came out for a raucous set with Musselwhite’s band. He still showcases his signature instrumental “The Creeper,” featuring a demonstration of circular breathing that still allows the 79-year-old harp master to play a string of sustained harp phrases seamlessly, tossing in a snippet of “Jingle Bells” at the end.
“This means a lot to me,” Musselwhite said, introducing Cotton’s “All Walks Of Life.” Musselwhite sang and Cotton blew the doors off his vehicle, chomping on the harp like it was an ear of corn, as Stubbs laid down some Anson Funderburgh-style licks around him. Cotton did some more serious harp chomping on “West Helena Blues,” as Musselwhite sang about his Arkansas sweetie who brings him brown tobacco for his jaw.
Musselwhite and Cotton seem like two old friends having a musical conversation, just enjoying each other’s company. Cotton regularly included Stubbs in the conversation, looking back over his shoulder and nodding approval when it was time for a guitar solo, his broad face creased in a big smile at what the guitarist had to say.
Hammond came back out again, and the three tore up “Got My Mojo Workin,’” Musselwhite and Cotton circling each other on harp, Musselwhite cluckin’ while Cotton glided along smoothly behind.
Cotton and Hammond left the stage for Musselwhite’s closer, “Christo Redentor,” from his ’67 debut album, Stand Back! Here Comes Charlie Mussselwhite’s Southside Band, and as an extended version on ’69’s Tennessee Woman. It‘s an odd tune, inspired by the statue of Jesus that overlooks Rio de Janeiro. It was first recorded by jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd in ’62. Byrd’s version had a choir wailing in the background, replaced by Musselwhite‘s lonely harp wails. Despite its celestial inspiration, it sounds more like a Sergio Leone spaghetti western soundtrack setting up Clint Eastwood’s appearance on a pale horse.
When the last wail faded away, that was it — no encore. The houselights came up, Musselwhite thanked the crowd for coming, packed up his tools onstage and headed for the merch table to provide roadshow sustenance for the faithful till he and his Hall of Fame compatriots have a place to call home.
Hall of Fame Tour
October 19, 2014