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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Charlie Musselwhite at the Old Town School of Folk Music

Photo by Rick Trankle/Alex Cuevas

Charlie Musselwhite visited Chicago this past weekend to headline at Buddy Guy's Legends on Saturday night. The local Chicago harmonica nerds, led by harmonica guru Joe Filisko, convinced him to stay over an extra day to visit with the Monday night Chicago Blues Harmonica class at the Old Town School of Folk Music. (that is Joe with Charlie in Rick Trankle's picture above). It was intense - the room is designed to hold 18-20 people, and we had over 50 wildly enthusiastic Musselwhite fans crammed into the classroom. It was a mixed crowd, ranging in age from 16 to 70, male and female (but mostly male), black and white (but mostly white).

Charlie is one of the living blues harmonica gods, up there with James Cotton and Kim Wilson. He is unique because he has "big ears" - yes, he is a blues guy, but he loves Brazilian music and Cuban music, and he has collaborated with musicians from those countries. "Every culture seems to have its music of lament," Charlie told us. "It's all blues to me."

Charlie is also the harp player that Tom Waits calls when he wants harmonica in a tune (check out Musselwhite's work on "Mule Variations"). And Charlie's songwriting seems to get stronger every year.

So I got to sit at Musselwhite's feet (literally - I was on the floor because all the chairs were full). He is a friendly, self-deprecating guy. There is a gentleness to his personality that is very appealing. He has a million stories, and he shared many with us. He also provided some equipment tips. He also shared an interesting fact - he said "I never had a plan, and I still don't. I have just been trying to have fun, and things have worked out. I have had some rough patches, but things have worked out OK with the harmonica."

Charlie's mother was the victim of a homicide in December 2005. The elderly woman was killed in Memphis by a 24-year old neighbor in an apparent home invasion/robbery. Charlie's wife, Henrietta, survived a shark attack in 2000 while vacationing in Maui. So Mr. Musselwhite has had his share of bad events.

He has long been a hero to me, and I know the rest of the folks at OTS last Monday felt the same. Charlie ended the evening by playing "Cristo Redemptor." Beautiful! Then he joined us at a local bar - he drank club soda, having sworn off alcohol 20 years ago. He loosened up - showed off his tattoos.

Photo By Rick Trankle/Alex Cuevas

Even though he is clean and sober these days, the man can still party.

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