Friday, April 26, 2024

Archive Review: Charlie Musselwhite's Juke Joint Chapel (2013)

Charlie Musselwhite's Juke Joint Chapel
Blues harp legend Charlie Musselwhite has been pretty busy since the 2010 release of his critically-acclaimed Alligator Records’ album The Well, his first all-original collection of songs. The album earned the blues veteran a well-deserved 2011 Blues Music Award as “Traditional Blues Male Artist of the Year,” a feat that he also duplicated in the same category the following year. Musselwhite released Get Up! in early 2013, the album a stunning collection of songs that saw the harmonica wizard collaborating with singer and guitarist Ben Harper on ten breathtaking original tracks of blues, blues-rock, and funky R&B.

Get Up! earned Musselwhite and Harper a Grammy® Award nomination and is certain to be in the running come time for the Blues Music Awards. Musselwhite spent much of 2013 touring with Harper in support of Get Up!, but he found enough time in his busy schedule to put the finishing touches on Juke Joint Chapel, a sizzling live album that documents an August 2012 performance by the blues harpist and his band at the Juke Joint Chapel, a venue located in the historic Shack Up Inn on Highway 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi – the birthplace of the blues!

Charlie Musselwhite’s Juke Joint Chapel

Juke Joint Chapel cranks up the party with a loping cover of Eddie Taylor’s classic “Bad Boy,” Musselwhite’s fluid harp lines dancing spryly atop the slow-walking rhythm as Matt Stubb’s guitar darts in and out of the arrangement with serpentine grace. Musselwhite’s vocals are gruff and slightly twangy, but it’s the harmonica that does most of the talking anyway, and the notes fall from the instrument like rain in a thunderstorm. The tempo picks up a step or two for a raucous take of “Shakey” Jake Harris’s “Roll Your Moneymaker,” the band ganging up on harmony vocals, which are in turn peppered by Stubbs’ stinging fretwork.

Stubbs’ clever guitarplay is front and center on the Tony Joe White roots-rocker “As The Crow Flies,” his energetic six-string sharing the spotlight with Musselwhite’s vocals and frenetic harpwork. The band choogles alongside the two frontmen with a lively locomotive rhythm propelled by drummer June Core’s explosive beat-keeping, but it’s the juxtaposed guitar/harmonica interplay that makes the song fly. It just isn’t a Charlie Musselwhite album without a nod to his old friend and mentor Little Walter, and on Juke Joint Chapel that purpose is served by a scorching cover of the harp legend’s “It Ain’t Right.” Delivered with a feverish intensity, the up-tempo arrangement sounds more like a runaway train than the aforementioned Tony Joe cover, with the band flailing away behind Musselwhite’s incredible harp gymnastics.  

Blues Why Do You Worry Me?

Halfway through Juke Joint Chapel we get the first Musselwhite original, but it’s a humdinger! On “Strange Land,” Stubbs lays down some staggered Bo Diddley-styled git licks, drummer Core and bassist Mike Phillips hold down a rhythmic bottom end, and Musselwhite layers on a flurry of notes which serve as both a bridge between the lyrics and as an emotional punctuation to the words. The song is a real barn burner, with Stubbs’ roaring solos and a cacophonic rhythmic backbone that is enhanced by Musselwhite’s low-key, growling vocals and high lonesome harp riffs. Musselwhite’s “Blues Overtook Me,” by contrast, is more of a traditional Chicago-styled blues romp with autobiographical lyrics, a rollicking backbeat, tasty guitarplay, and savage harp slinging inspired by both the great “Walters” – Little Walter Jacobs and Big Walter Horton.

The original “River Hip Mama” is Chicago styled blues by way of the Mississippi Delta as filtered through the 1960s-era British blues-rock of the Rolling Stones. The band creates a menacing, malevolent groove with a boogie-beat worthy of Canned Heat and John Lee Hooker, swinging wildly as Musselwhite chomps away on the harmonica and Stubbs injects shards of slashing guitar. Musselwhite’s lyrics and vocal delivery…slightly grumbled and altogether lusty…also reminds of the great John Lee. His “Blues Why Do You Worry Me?” is another old school high-flyer with referential lyrics, a fine walking bass line, elegant fretwork and, of course, imaginative harmonica licks threaded throughout. Juke Joint Chapel closes out with a cover of jazz legend Duke Pearson’s best-known song, the classic “Cristo Redentor,” for which Musselwhite and crew deliver an energetic and unique reading, the best I’ve heard since guitarist Harvey Mandel’s 1968 recording, the band’s instruments meshing perfectly to create a magical fusion of blues feeling and jazzy virtuosity.    

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Regardless of whether he’s revisiting old gems or covering classic blues tunes, Musselwhite always provides entertaining performances, and he’s found the perfect musical foil in guitarist Matthew Stubbs to help flesh out his electrifying live sound. Juke Joint Chapel delivers the stone-cold real deal that hardcore blues fans crave, the album perfectly capturing Musselwhite and crew’s houserockin’ live set. Whether you’re a newcomer to the Musselwhite camp who just signed on with The Well or Get Up!, or you’re a longtime follower of the harp wizard, you won’t be disappointed by the high-octane jams showcased on Juke Joint Chapel! (Henrietta Records, released December 24, 2013)

Buy the CD from Amazon: Charlie Musselwhite’s Juke Joint Chapel

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