Review: Charlie Musselwhite, Elvin Bishop go way back

It sounds as comfortably casual as it looks: “100 Years of the Blues”
Alligator Records

Elvin Bishop and Charlie Musselwhite. That’s a match made in blues heaven on earth.

The septuagenarians collaborated on a 12-song album, “100 Years of Blues,” a statement of their collective music careers. But considering they both started out in Chicago in the early 1960s, they passed the century mark a while ago. As Bishop sings, “We’ve been around since the Dead Sea was sick.”

They honed their craft in the same South Side clubs and both moved to Northern California in the late ‘60s but have never made a complete record together until now. They did share some Bay Area fishing holes and the stage during a tour in the 1980s and they cut a song for Elvin Bishop’s Big Fun Trio in 2017 that’s the title track of the new album, “100 Years of Blues.” In 2019, Bishop, Musselwhite and guitarist-piano player Bob Welsh played a handful of shows that were so successful they decided to make an album.

The full-length CD, released Sept. 25 on Alligator Records, has a new original, three covers of blues standards, and eight rearrangements of Bishop and Musselwhite’s greatest songs. They don’t have the studio polish of the initial recordings, instead they shine with the most brilliant raw blues you’ve ever heard. Bishop, of course, plays electric guitar and sings in front-porch parlance and Musselwhite blows his deep harmonica and sings with a rich and utterly cool baritone voice. The two interact in a conversational fashion that is natural and casual.

A member of the Big Fun Trio, Welsh plays guitar and piano, and on four of the songs Kid Andersen plays upright bass. The sessions were held at Andersen’s Greaseland Studios in San Jose and Bishop’s Hog Heaven Studios in Lagunitas, where that great IPA beer is brewed.

Charlie Musselwhite, 76, and Elvin Bishop, 77, are finally together.
Pat Johnson photograph

Here’s a look at the songs:

‘Birds of a Feather’

This is the new one, “a whole bunch of blues lovers gathered together,” introducing the listener to the house-rocking party. It is the third go-around for both artists on the Chicago-based Alligator label.

‘What The Hell’

Bishop’s 2005 song with contemporary lyrics: “He’s the president but wants to be the king. You know what I like about the guy? Not a goddamn thing. I want to know how can four years seem so long? Lord have mercy, what the hell is going on?” That’s blues with a feeling. Musselwhite really rips on the harp on this up-tempo groove.

‘Good Times’

It’s more than ambitious to redo the greatest blues recording of all time — That’s been my opinion ever since 1984 when Musselwhite and his sidemen Pat and Robben Ford made “Where Have All The Good Times Gone.” But Musselwhite wrote it, so why not? This version is a completely different hue of blue, slowed down and funky with Musselwhite on slide guitar and Welsh on piano. Charlie’s vocals are so cool, he makes Elvis sound nerdy by comparison.

‘Old School’

This humorous ditty came out on Bishop’s 2014 third comeback with Alligator, “Can’t Even Do Wrong Right.” That likely was the first time Musselwhite and Bishop appeared together on a studio recording. The banter at the song’s outro perhaps kindled the collaboration for the 2017 version of the song “100 Years of Blues.” The new recording concludes with a raucous jam.

‘If I Should Have Bad Luck’ and ‘Blues Why Do You Worry Me’

These songs came from 1993’s “In My Time,” during Musselwhite’s first run with Alligator. They are two of Musselwhite’s better-known songs, rearranged, respectively, to Little Walter’s Chicago style and a New Orleans-swinging barrelhouse.

‘Midnight Hour Blues’

This is as slow and sad as it must have been after losing your woman and not even able to buy a drink to numb the sorrow. Leroy Carr wrote it in 1932 during the Prohibition era. Bishop’s vocals are hardly smooth, but they sure can be heartfelt. If you don’t feel the blues here, there is a hole in your soul.

‘West Helena Blues’

The song was penned in 1950 by “The Honeydripper” Roosevelt Sykes. He used to play in a duo with Musselwhite’s mentor Big Joe Williams, who used a uniquely tuned 9-string guitar. Why nine strings? If no one else knew how to play it, nobody would steal it. Musselwhite, naturally, sings this one.

‘South Side Slide’

The only instrumental on the album, Musselwhite on harmonica incredibly emulates Bishop’s signature guitar lick from the original version.

‘Help Me’

Musselwhite also recorded this standard on his 1967 debut, “Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite’s South Side Band.” That’s right, Vanguard Records misspelled Musselwhite’s first name. The same error occurred on the 1968 follow-up LP. Welcome to the blues, Charlie.

‘Blues For Yesterday’

The original was very good. But Musselwhite goes deeper into his soul here, and Welsh’s piano and Bishop’s guitar complement it exquisitely. It slowly builds. The final chorus and harp solo will bring chills to the spine and water to the eyes. This is my favorite track.

‘100 Years of Blues’

The autobiographical song envelopes with the romping first tune. “We’re mighty glad to be here and actually lucky to be anywhere at all. If you like what you hear and think we’ve paid our dues, I just want you to remember, we bring you 100 years of the blues.”

This is a sure-fire Grammy Award nominee for Best Blues Album and it will be a surprise if it doesn’t win it.

-Tim Parsons

  • Elvin Bishop & Charlie Musselwhite
  • ‘100 Years of Blues’
  • Label: Alligator Records
  • Release: Sept. 25, 2020
  • Favorite tracks: ‘Blues For Yesterday,’ ‘What The Hell?’

Related stories:
-Bishop and Musselwhite talk about old days, new album.
The Alligator Records story in a book.

ABOUT Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons
Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.

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