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The long road to the blues and back again



Who: Charlie Musselwhite Band & Jim Byrnes

Where: Buffalo Bill’s

When: Sunday, May 18

The Mississippi River stretches for more than 2,000 miles. It serves as the backdrop, both literally and metaphorically, for the life and times of harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite. As a bluesman, Charlie has journeyed long and hard and yet never loses sight of the place that he calls home.

Born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, in 1944, Musselwhite’s family moved north to Memphis when Charlie was still a lad and became immersed in the city’s diverse musical culture. He went to school with Johnny Cash’s brother, Tommy, lived down the road from rockabilly legends Johnny Burnette and Slim Rhodes and went to parties hosted by the King of Rock ’n’ Roll, Elvis Presley.

Memphis was the home of the blues, and at that time the town was a musical hotbed. Musselwhite was drawn to the blues. It infected him with a lifelong enthusiasm for this particular strain of American music. In his teens, he befriended several of Memphis’ legendary bluesmen, including Furry Lewis, Will Shade and the surviving members of the Texas Jug Band. Soon he was sitting in with his more experienced friends and quickly began to earn a reputation for himself.

That reputation didn’t pay the bills however, and Musselwhite was running moonshine to supplement his meagre income. After being followed by state police one day, Musselwhite decided to pack it up and head north to Chicago in search of a better job. He became a familiar face at blues haunts, sitting in and sometimes playing alongside harmonica lords such as Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and even Sonny Boy Williamson. He also worked as a band member with Big Joe Williams, J.B. Hutto, Big Walter Horton, Robert Nighthawk and Floyd Jones. No doubt, Musselwhite absorbed a lot of influences from the Windy City’s finest, but most of all he was inspired by the passion and soul of the Chicago blues masters and it gave him the incentive to find his own sound.

That he did, on his first album, Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite’s Southside Blues Band , one of the first critically acclaimed white blues albums, released in 1967. Musselwhite became an icon to the rock audiences of the ’60s and ’70s. He recorded another three albums and toured extensively during that period, performing at many of the biggest blues festivals both in North America and abroad. As one critic wrote at the time, "Charlie Musselwhite is the natural born heir to carry the torch for the big city blues tradition."

After Stand Back! had become a standard on San Francisco underground radio, Musselwhite played the Fillmore Auditorium and never returned to the Windy City. Soon he was performing with bands that featured great guitarists like Harvey Mandel, Freddie Roulette, Junior Watson and Robben Ford. He released two more acclaimed albums, Takin’ My Time (1971) and Goin’ Back Down South (1974), which artfully depicted Musselwhite’s by-now beautifully textured harp style.

Charlie performed steadily around the Bay Area but he found himself grappling with a growing drinking habit that ate away at his domestic life and career. Musselwhite dusted himself off though and in the mid-80s, he started a career resurgence, releasing three critically acclaimed albums and winning W.C. Handy Awards for his blues harmonica playing. He also experimented with Cuban folk music with the release of Continental Drifter and continues to expand his musical vision with each new project.

His latest recording is in many ways a homecoming. " One Night in America is a reflection of my experiences in Memphis," said Musselwhite. "They were the times I had – the sad ones and the happy ones – it was all I knew."

Along with the Charlie Musselwhite Blues Band, Jim Byrnes a fellow blues musician and well known actor, will be at Bill’s too.

Advance tickets are $25 and are available from Buffalo Bill’s by calling 604-932-6613, or check out Bestsellers and Ticketweb. Doors open 8 p.m. and show starts 9:30 p.m.

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