Chicago Sun-Times
Tuning in with Thomas Conner

Blues great Charlie Musselwhite on Ben Harper collab

| No Comments | No TrackBacks


Ben Harper (left) leans on blues harmonica great Charlie Musselwhite
for a new collaborative project.

This is why Charlie Musselwhite is such a good blues songwriter. He actually talks like this.
He's describing how he feels about his newest project -- "Get Up," an album and resulting tour with roots-rocker Ben Harper -- and, brother, he's feeling good.

"It was more than fun," Musselwhite says, on the phone from his home in Sonoma County, Calif. "It was like some other word I don't know yet. It was so rewarding and satisfying -- it was like going to church, it felt so good."

He chuckles and thinks a moment. "Well, it might be how some people feel. I don't go to church myself. Maybe I'm always in church wherever I am."

An evening of the blues with

• 8 p.m. March 3
• Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine
• Tickets, $50; (800) 514-ETIX;

Harper, 43, and Musselwhite, 69, have danced around the idea of working together for nearly 20 years. Encouraged by mutual collaborator John Lee Hooker, the young singer-songwriter and the veteran harmonica pro -- one of the best ever -- talked about it and kept orbiting each other's worlds. Musselwhite joined Harper on stage in Chicago back in 2005. In 2007, Musselwhite wound up on the Lollapalooza bill.

When the time came to finally get their man-crush on record, Musselwhite joined Harper and his band of Texas players for a quick session. The result is "Get Up," released via the venerable soul label Stax.

It's not the first time Harper has invited an older master into his circle. He's worked previously with Solomon Burke and the Blind Boys of Alabama.

Mississippi-born Musselwhite made his name in the early 1960s, one of many white bluesmen (along with Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield) in Chicago reviving and transcending the genre alongside Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf and Buddy Guy. Musselwhite signed to Chicago blues label Alligator Records in 1990 and returned to the label for his superb, Grammy-nominated 2010 album "The Well."

We caught up with him to hear about how this project finally came around, how the blues have changed (or not) over the years and what made Chicago such fun in the 1960s:

Question: You've been on the road a long time. Still enjoy heading out?
Charlie Musselwhite: Oh yeah. It's not like it was in my 20s, of course. It's not that kind of party anymore. But it's really rewarding and a lot of fun and great to take the music to the people and see their smiling faces. I especially look forward to coming back to Chicago, which is kind of my second home. I have a lot of old friends there. A lot of ghosts, too.

Q. This album and this tour are showing up now, but this collaboration goes back a ways, right?
CM: Ben and I met for the first time when he was opening for John Lee Hooker [in 1994]. I was playing with John Lee. Actually, I was sitting in. He used to call me up all the time, and if I wasn't working he'd get me to go play with him and not pay me anything. It was always fun, and we were good friends, I didn't mind. But then our paths, Ben and I, kept crossing. We met again at a blues festival in Australia and had a serious talk about music. Paths kept crossing. Mike Kappus, the manager for John Lee, had me and Ben and his band back up John Lee doing "Burning Hell" [in 1997], and that's when we really clicked musically. John Lee said we sounded so good together we should do more together. We knew he was right.

Q. But it didn't happen.
CM: We kept talking about it over the years. It's hard since we're both so busy, trying to find time when we're not busy at the same time so we can get busy together. After many years, it finally happened. We both had down time last year and filled it up with recording. It only took a couple of days. Everything was one or two takes, not really any overdubs. It was a really magical session.

Q. Ben's been around a while, but it seems like critics and fans took some time warming up to him. Why did you latch on?
CM: When I heard Ben's music, I could tell there were roots in there. He's not just coming straight from rock. He loves the blues, he plays great blues. Maybe some people didn't hear that in his music at first. I was telling Ben this album sounds like all the elements are there for the blues, but it's like a blues for today. To me, it sounds like a new way of being traditional. It has all the usual ingredients, but it's fresh and rockin' in its own way. It doesn't sound like something that was recorded in 1953.

Q. Blues hasn't changed its basics in a century. How do you keep it that fresh?
CM: That's the thing about blues, it has a real spirit to it. It doesn't have to be three chords and the I-IV-V progression. It's all about the feeling. It happens that those three chords are a convenient way to express that feeling, but even if B.B. King sang "Mary Had a Little Lamb" you'd have no doubt you were listening to the blues. He puts that feeling into it.

Q. That I'd like to hear.
CM: You know, a country guy might sing, "My baby left me. I'm gonna go jump off a bridge." A blues guy would never say that. A blues guy sings, "My baby left me. I'm gonna go get myself a new baby."

Q. But the genre has diversified well away from its core.
CM: A lot of people call themselves blues players today that no one ever would have considered blues back in the day. It's gotten watered down. There's a lot that's more rock than blues. A lot of people want to be associated with the blues, and a lot of them miss the point. There's no feeling in 'em. They're great technicians, but you listen and think, "OK, where's the music? That's a lot of notes you just played real fast and loud, but you're not saying anything with it."

Q. So what is it that makes straight-up blues?
CM: Just that fire, the same fire Muddy Waters recorded with. It's just there, waiting to be tapped. Time to go to work? OK, and out it comes.

Q. What drew you to Chicago when you were, what, 18?
CM: Yes, 1962. I'd grown up in Memphis, which was real economically depressed. It was hard to find good paying jobs. I'd done some moonshine running, which paid really well but you didn't do it every day. One day, the police were following me. I knew because I went all the way around the block and they stayed with me. I'd heard about the good-paying factory jobs in Chicago. That day when the police were on my tail, I thought it was a good time to go to Chicago.

Q. You found the blues scene pretty quickly?
CM: Yeah, but I didn't know it was there. My first job was a driver for an exterminator. I drove all over town and learned the city pretty well. I'd see signs in the windows of bars about blues -- the first sign I saw was for Elmore James, somewhere around Maxwell Street -- and I'd write down the addresses and go back to the clubs. Pepper's Lounge, places like that. I thought anyone in the entertainment business lived in New York City or Hollywood. I knew the labels on the records I liked, like Chess, said Chicago, but I thought that meant where they were manufactured. But, boy, I found out. I felt like a kid in a candy store. It was wonderful getting to hear all my blues heroes. If they didn't live in Chicago, they came through to play. I wasn't asking to sit in, I was just happy to be there. They found out I played, one thing led to another and here we are talking about it.

No TrackBacks

TrackBack URL:

Leave a comment

Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.


About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on February 27, 2013 12:00 PM.

Morrissey reschedules Chicago show: March 23 was the previous entry in this blog.

Crystal Bowersox on her new album -- and Broadway is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.