Along with Paul Butterfiled, Mississipi-born, Memphis-rasied harpist Charlie Musselwhite can be credited for giving the so-called white blues movement of the '60s a leg to stand on. Already a master of the blues harp by his late teens, the then twentysomething Musselwhite had moved to Chicago and begun to absorb the intricacies of its urban blues sound. It's a style that Musselwhite has remained faithful to for the better part of 40 years. Still, the 60-year-old musician is regarded as one of the most adventurous bluesmen around, within his chosen idiom. And he's got 14 W.C. Handy awards and half a dozen Grammy nominations to prove it.
Now the undisputed master of the blues harp, Musselwhite has burst into 2004 with a new album, the 27th of his career, and a new all-star band. Sanctuary (Real World) features Musselwhite on vocals and harp, and aligns him with Austin, Texas guitarist Charlie Sexton (Arc Angels, Bob Dylan), who proves to be the perfect melodic force both for Musselwhite's harp and his seasoned voice. Guests on the album include Ben Harper (who contributed the album's opening track) and the Blind Boys of Alabama, with whom Musselwhite has recorded in the past.
With a back catalog as strong and diverse as Musselwhite's, it difficult to determine instantly where the new record fits. To be sure, though, it's the best blues release of the year thus far, the dark, smoky kind of blues record that reverberates long after the final track has played itself out. And as a live performer, you're not likely to find another blues musician as authentic or hell-bent on tearing the roof off the sucker as Charlie Musselwhite.
Charlie Musselwhite performs Tuesday, May 18 at historic El Rey Theater at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $21.50 in advance (StarTicketsPlus.net and Bookworks), $25 at the door. Call 242-2353 for more information.