Charlie Musselwhite – Sanctuary


With his debut album in 1966, harmonica vanguard Charlie Musselwhite met and set the standard for authenticity and adventurism in blues. But in the past few years,each succeeding CDhas pushed the genre’s envelope and his own artistry to greater heights. With Sanctuary he is truly at the top of his game.

With 1997’s Rough News Musselwhite interjected Brazilian street music; on 1999’s Continental Drifter he teamed with Eliades Ochoa and created a hybrid between blues and Cuban more ambitiously than even Ry Cooder’s Buena Vista success; and 2002’s One Night In America stretched his roots/Americana axis to connect the dots between Johnny Cash, Jimmy Reed, and Los Lobos.

Sanctuary was produced by John Chelew and follows his usual m.o. of coming up with seemingly odd groupings of musicians that turn out making perfect musical sense and often magic. His previous credits include John Hiatt’s breakthrough album Bring The Family and The Blind Boys of Alabama’s Spirit Of The Century, which featured Musselwhite, along with John Hammond and David Lindley. This time, he hand-picked guitarist Charlie Sexton, bassist Jared Michael Nickerson, and drummer Michael Jerome as the core band, with Ben Harper lending lap steel on two tracks and the Blind Boys of Alabama supplying background vocals.

On paper, Sexton (a solo artist and most recently a member of Bob Dylan’s band) might seem an unlikely candidate, but the Austinite was playing blues bars with W.C. Clark before he reached his teens, toured with Joe Ely at 13, and learned just about all you could learn by seeing Stevie Ray, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and the LeRoi Brothers in his (and their) formative years. Long mature beyond his years, at 35 Sexton can deliver the goods and then some. Here his solos are sparse and tasteful; more important are the tones and textures he infuses into the songs’ arrangements.

The repertoire ranges from Sexton’s own “The Neighborhood” and Townes Van Zandt’s spooky “Snake Song” to Randy Newman’s “Burn Down The Cornfield” and early Savoy Brown’s “Train To Nowhere,” along with several heartfelt Musselwhite originals – including a sort of autobiographical talking blues, “I Had Trouble,” and closing with a short but potent harp solo, “Route 19.”

The most ambitious and beautiful track, though, is the instrumental “Alicia.” A minor-key ballad from jazz saxophonist Eddie Harris’s 1961 LP, Exodus To Jazz, its haunting melodicism, with Musselwhite’s crying harp and Sexton’s jazz-inflected accompaniment, is reminiscent of Charlie’s reading of “Cristo Redentor” on his 1967 debut, Stand Back! Here Comes Charlie Musselwhite’s South Side Band. Proof that 37 years later, the blues legend hasn’t lost a step and is still exploring roads other bluesmen have yet to travel.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s June ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.