Charlie Musselwhite,
Delta Hardware
(Realworld, 2006)

Charlie Musselwhite, a Mississippi-born/California-resident harmonica player, has been pumping out superior blues albums since the 1960s. I haven't heard them all -- nobody but the most obsessive completist could have -- but most observers would agree that Musselwhite knows his way around the studio, writes good songs, chooses interesting cover material, puts together solid bands and gets the job done pretty much every time.

Still, his latest, Delta Hardware, manages to be a particular treat, combining crisp modern studio sounds with a raw, tough-minded downhome approach. That approach has a whole lot to do with electricity and virtually nothing to do with rock in any generic sense. Yes, Musselwhite and band rock, but they rock not like rockers but like blues-soaked veterans of lowdown barroom and sweat-stained dancehall. At the base are Delta-inflected Chicago sounds of the 1950s and '60s, at the top jerky, percussive North Mississippi juke-joint rhythms. To sum up: no b.s. "blues rock," all straight, natch'l blues.

Delta Hardware has a couple of songs from the catalogue of blues-harp giant Little Walter, "One of These Mornings" (less an original than a cobbling together of traditional verses) and "Just a Feeling." These, of course, are ably executed and gratifying to the ear. Still, the most striking cuts, at least in terms of subject matter, are two Musselwhite co-writes, "Black Water" and "Invisible Ones," inspired by the Katrina disaster and Washington's unforgivably bungled response. (Perhaps "bungled" is too kind. Try "indifferent." No, let's go with "craven.") Musselwhite delivers this ominous message about black water literal and metaphorical:

Old black water lappin' at your back door
Hello, America, better get ready for more
Trouble, trouble all around here
Just too tired to shed one tear.

Bluntly protest-themed blues tunes are rare, and perhaps for that reason all the more attention-forcing when they show up. Beyond that, as Musselwhite knows well, flood blues stretch back to the genre's earliest days, to such defining pieces as Lonnie Johnson's "Broken Levee Blues," Barbecue Bob's "Mississippi Heavy Water Blues," Charlie Patton's "High Water Everywhere" and Memphis Minnie's "When the Levee Breaks," all conjuring up the suffering brought by the devastating 1927 Mississippi River flood. Unlike those artists -- poor, black and severely circumscribed in what they could say and whom they could accuse -- Musselwhite is able to speak pointedly albeit without flying off, however understandably under the circumstances, into either rage or sermon.

Joining Musselwhite on this sterling recording are drummer June Core, guitarist Chris "Kid" Andersen and bassist Randy Bermudes. If you haven't heard the blues served Musselwhite style, Delta Hardware is where to go for your first helping. I expect that you'll be back for more.

by Jerome Clark
11 November 2006

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