Graded on a Curve: Charlie Musselwhite, Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite’s South Side Band

Though their number continues to gradually dwindle, a few severe sticklers do persist in maintaining that the blues up and died when its essence got plugged into an amplifier. This hard-line stance is an easy one to shrug off, but there is also larger numbers of folks subscribing to the notion that the 1960s initiated the electric blues’ long slow decline. A quick fix for this faulty line of thinking is to cozy up to a copy of Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite’s South Side Band.

By 1967, deep Chicago blues was in a dual position of having established an inextricable connection to the popular sounds of the day (student Stones sitting at the feet of teacher Howlin’ Wolf on Shindig, assorted garage rock covers of “Baby Please Don’t Go,” the growing popularity of Eric Clapton) while simultaneously being in commercial remission, with the blues’ core audience ditching the stuff in droves and heading for the climes of increased sophistication. At least that’s what some music history books tell us.

To clarify a bit, the Chicago blues continued to thrive as live club music, and where a national company like Chess was scrambling to contemporize their marquee stars Wolf and Muddy Waters for the swelling consumer market of the rock generation, there were also far more humble and sensible labels like Chicago’s own Delmark and the wide-ranging folk-oriented imprint Vanguard, with both stepping up to promote the undying oomph of unadulterated Windy City sounds.

Still a few years away was Alligator Records’ unleashing of the amazing Hound Dog Taylor, but in 1967 (some reports insist 1966) Vanguard was wise enough to wax up Stand Back! It serves as the long-playing debut from Memphis’ Charlie Musselwhite and also as one of the most fully formed first efforts of its decade; along the way the label roped in blues scholar Sam Charters as producer, commissioned liner notes from the estimable Pete Welding, and then made sure to misspell Musselwhite’s first name on the cover. And it’s a bummer that far too few current listeners know the guy by either variation.

But where Musselwhite has suffered for general notoriety next to his contemporaries Paul Butterfield or Mike Bloomfield (the other Caucasian Chicago bluesmen of note, though it’s important to clarify that Musselwhite claims Native American ancestry), it’s a cinch that more people have actually heard Charlie blow, for it’s his amplified harmonica on “Suicide Blonde” by INXS.

In addition to releasing his own albums and collaborating with Ben Harper, he’s also featured on Tom Waits’ The Mule Variations, so he’s had no problem staying active in later years. In terms of early days, Stand Back! is notable for its sly combination of surface reverence to that no-nonsense Chi-bar-band manner, blending it with a sincere, distinct and assured artistic personality that nods toward rock but fortunately doesn’t fall victim to missteps or overreaching.

Though he’s obviously projecting a bit of unlived experience and weary inflection during opener “Baby Will You Please Help Me,” that’s not unusual for the blues, and the idea that the style is devoid of affectation with its greatest tunes purely autobiographical is a naïve one. Happily, Musselwhite’s vocals do consistently avoid the sort of obnoxious soul-boy emoting that was just starting to taint the blues, and in particular blues-rock, in its more polished forms.

The spotlight here is mainly thrown upon Musselwhite’s harmonica, which is an often tough mix of the titanic mouth-harp precedents of elders Big Walter “Shakey” Horton and Little Walter Jacobs. He’s no throwback or rote copyist though, instead staking out territory as a vital participant in the stylistic advance that was happening in ‘60s Chicago, with records by Magic Sam, Junior Wells, Otis Rush and others showing that the front line of the city’s blues scene had shifted to a younger crowd.

The key to this band’s success begins with its veteran rhythm section, particularly Chess mainstay Fred Below on drums. Along with bassist Bob Anderson, the pair work-up the essential greasy heat without falling into flashiness or the type of overbusy behavior that could ruin later-period electric blues recs. And this rhythmic simplicity really spreads like a benevolent disease over Harvey Mandel and Barry Goldberg, the other more explicitly rock-inclined players in Musselwhite’s band.

The organ approach of Goldberg (whose long résumé includes forming The Electric Flag with Bloomfield), best displayed here on “Christo Redemptor,” “39th and Indiana,” and “Sad Day,” is impressively restrained, which is sort of a big deal since few things can (and often did) lay waste to a perfectly fine and functioning band like some joker in the throes of emotion noodling all over a defenseless electric keyboard.

And while Goldberg’s no Otis Spann (to say nothing of Sunnyland Slim), the guy’s piano on Stand Back! is also undeniably alright, as is the guitar of Mandel (a seasoned vet soon to replace Henry Vestine in Canned Heat and making his recording debut here), with his technique informed by the newfound rock heaviness of the period without being overtaken by its still limited vocabulary.

The instrumental “Chicken Shack” provides a good example: it seems to derive its guitar sound from both Otis Rush’s classic Cobra sides and Freddy King’s early work for Federal, but it’s subtly heavier, and in a fashion similar to the playing found the previous year on John Mayall’s Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton, an LP where Rush’s “All Your Love” and King’s “Hideaway” received the cover treatment.

There’s no sense of labored appropriation here however, rather just a feel of a well-practiced group tapping into comparable sources. And they really excel at down-tempo blues; see “39th and Indiana” again, which frequently hits those sweet pockets of groove that have long accompanied the intertwining of two souls on a dark and smoky dance floor.

Meanwhile, Musselwhite’s improvising on the harp possesses both power and nuance, his songwriting is reliably solid and occasionally exceptional, and his choice of cover material quite inspired. Not only does he offer a killer version of “Help Me” from Sonny Boy Williamson II and chalk up another take of “Early in the Morning” as popularized by Sonny Boy Williamson I and later Junior Wells, but out of left field comes a reading of pianist/arranger and Blue Note jazz legend Duke Pearson’s “Christo Redemptor” that’s been described as Musselwhite’s signature tune.

Across Stand Back! the harp-man/bandleader only really sings when it’s called for, instead wisely (especially for a cat of only 22 years) letting the music do most of the talking. And those sleeve words by Welding add class as Charters’ unfussy production seals the deal; he gets an immediate hold upon that booming, echoing Chicago hugeness that made the best of that city’s later-‘60s blues albums stand the test of time. That means it can be played in the company of stone classics such as Wells’ Hoodoo Man Blues and Magic Sam’s West Side Soul with satisfactory results.

Add the three volumes in Vanguard’s revelatory Charters-produced ’66 comp series Chicago/The Blues/Today! (apparently the label never met an exclamation point they didn’t like) to the above, with the third entry presenting Musselwhite’s actual recording debut as a member of Big Walter Horton’s Blues Harp Band, and the total counts as a superb hunk of listening.

If none of those discs ring any positive bells, rest easy that they’ll provide a deluxe feast for the blues curious. Stand Back! is raw enough to satisfy a randy young Fat Possum fan while being almost custom fit to pass muster for those stodgy curmudgeons that have long clung to the purist ideal like a barnacle latched onto the ass of a manatee. Shake it loose!

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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