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Album Review

"Rambler's Blues," the shuffling hip-shaker that opens Charlie Musselwhite's The Well, is the most autobiographical statement he's ever made — until you listen to the rest of the record. Despite his large catalogue, this is his first record of all original material. Musselwhite's back with Alligator after a sojourn of 14 years, during which he recorded some stellar material for various labels, including the stellar Delta Hardware for Real World in 2006. Musselwhite is accompanied here by a stellar band: guitarist Dave Gonzales, bassist John Bazz, and drummer Stephen Hodges. His own harmonica playing and vocals are everywhere and top-notch. The most compelling thing about The Well is its lack of pretension; Musselwhite has risen to the task of recording a completely autobiographical album that refuses easy clichés, or resting on laurels; its energy is infectious. This happens even on "Sad and Beautiful World," where he addresses the murder of his 93-year-old mother in her home during a burgluary. With duet help from Mavis Staples, he tells the story unwaveringly in an uptempo shuffling jump that evokes his lifetime obsession with the road, the blues, and his deep sadness over such a senseless and brutal loss. (His harmonica solo, punctuated by Staples' sung gospel-like responses, expresses volumes.) The jazz-blues of "Dig the Pain," addressing his willing participation in the misery of alcoholism, is a dirty love song without irony. The title track is a strutter about the inspiration he gained from Jessica McClure, a young girl trapped in a Texas well who sang nursery rhymes to herself as consolation until she was rescued. He gets down deep inside his brand of roadhouse blues to make sure nobody feels anything but admiration for Ms. McClure while revealing what he learned from the experience. (Impressed by her courage and ashamed at his lack of it, Musselwhite quit drinking that day, 22 years ago.) Other tracks, such as "Cadillac Women," "Good Times," "Cook County Blues," and "Just You, Just Blues," address different aspects of a bluesman's life — perhaps all bluesmen's lives — in fingerpopping, ass-shaking manner. "Hoodoo Queen," and "Sorcerer's Dream," are obsessive sense impressions from Musselwhite's personal and roiling, brooding blues language. Other knockouts are "Sonny Payne Special" and "Clarksdale Getaway," instrumental harmonica strutters that simply stomp. The Well is different from any recording Musselwhite's done before, but it also represents him and his experience of the blues in a singular and profound way. It's damn near perfect.


Born: 31 January 1944 in Kosciusko, MS

Genre: Blues

Years Active: '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

Harmonica wizard Norton Buffalo can recollect a leaner time when his record collection had been whittled down to only the bare essentials: The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite's South Side Band. Butterfield and Musselwhite will probably be forever linked as the two most interesting, and arguably the most important, products of the "white blues movement" of the mid- to late '60s -- not only because they were near the forefront chronologically, but because...
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The Well, Charlie Musselwhite
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