Musselwhite’s Good Blues and Big Joy
Sobriquets like “living legend” and “master” cling to Charlie Musselwhite deservedly. Having performed for more than 50 years, most of it with other legends in his wide, blues-infused musical field of influence, his stage presence and harp-playing at 72 years of age, is one of ease and joy. Musselwhite and band took the Freight stage on a warm June evening in Berkeley, and quickly got down to business, filling the hall with a festival atmosphere. Tearing into a set at full power that drew heavily from Musselwhite’s latest release, I Ain’t Lyin’, his Memphis and Chicago-blues-infused soul was clear and vibrant. Fit and smiling, he blew his harp with relish, and apparently ageless lungs, bolstered by the support of three assured players several decades his junior. Drummer June Core set a deep and steady tempo, bass player Randy Bermudes played as if he was rooted to and through the stage, and guitarist Matthew Stubbs who, leaving most of the rhythm to Core and Bermudes, played counterpoint to Musselwhite’s fluid and dynamic harp when he wasn’t leading the solos. With Core and Bermudes holding his back, Musselwhite clearly enjoyed trading solos with Stubbs, smiling at him and telling him to keep going, the two musicians often appearing in close conference as they traded licks.
“Come on in, we got good blues tonight,” Musselwhite sang, and yes the Freight crowd did, wiggling in their seats if they weren’t dancing in the aisles. This was a powerful band that was hot from the get-go, and appeared as if it could maintain a high tempo for many, many hours.
Musselwhite paused on occasion to tell stories about playing for tips in his early days with a who’s who of Memphis and Chicago bluesmen, and “wishing he’d paid more attention, but I didn’t know I was preparing for a career!”
Now based in California, Musselwhite’s musical, harmonica-fueled train has clearly traveled to the ends of the earth and back again, and his show provided a snapshot of the many places he’s known, stopping at speakeasies and roadways (“300 Miles to Go”), bedrooms (“Long Leg Women”) and churches. Mid-set he told the audience about going up to Chicago to get a factory job and perhaps a nice new car, and instead walking the streets alone… and, it went without saying, falling headlong into Chicago’s deep, rich music scene. “I wrote this song when I was 18, walking those streets, and recorded it on my first record,” he said, before tearing into “Stranger in a Strange Land” as if it was a brand new composition. A few songs later, he traded his harmonica for a guitar and slide and played some downtempo “old blues,” revisiting a path not taken, before reaching back into his box of harps and revving up again.
Taking an encore with an extended instrumental, the pensive and redemptive “Christo Redentor,” Musselwhite’s blues service for the evening was complete.
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Sonoma County’s Easy Leaves, a country-western duo of bassist Kevin Carducci and guitarist/harmonica Sage Fifield, kicked off the evening with a tight, spirited set of well-crafted originals. “We know you’re here for someone who can really play harmonica,” Fifield mentioned after their first song, but the duo more than held their own with strong harmonies and evocative tunes about such topics as grandma’s drinking problems, traveling, lost love and the lonely, beautiful stars at night.