• 2004
  • Sanctuary
  • Charlie Musselwhite
  • Real World


Time flies, and some things, like wine and Charlie Musselwhite, just improve with age. A native of Mississippi and a product of Memphis, Musselwhite moved to Chicago in his early 20s; along with Paul Butterfield, Musselwhite became an outstanding practitioner of the blues harmonica. Perhaps slightly less creative than Butterfield but with arguably a purer tone, he has pursued a consistent career as an outstanding harmonica player, garnering innumerable awards and the accolades of fellow blues artists.

Listen to “Stand Back,” Musselwhite’s classic album recorded in 1966, when he was just 22, and one hears uptempo electric Chicago blues at its best, featuring Charlie’s powerful voice and stellar harp playing. 38 years later, on “Sanctuary,” his umpteenth record, he is just as commanding, but in a far different way. Powerful voices don’t last forever; witness the ravaged cords of another harmonica master, James Cotton, and the raspy offerings of Bob Dylan. Musselwhite, too, has experienced diminution of his singing volume and range, but has adapted with a husky, understated style that is even more evocative. It fits this album perfectly.

Of the 12 cuts on “Sanctuary,” four are Musselwhite’s own compositions. The over-all tone of the disc is moody and introspective, with more of the flavor of back-porch country than barroom Chicago blues. Every song is a wonder, from the opening cut, “Homeless Child,” a Ben Harper tune with a spiritual vibe, to “Route 19,” the brief solo harp instrumental coda. “Train to Nowhere” and “I Had Trouble” are abetted by the backing vocals of the Blind Boys of Alabama, and Ben Harper himself lends a hand on “Homeless Child” and “Sanctuary.” Many of the cuts are plaintive and wistful, as if Musselwhite were sitting on his back porch on a sweltering summer night, singing to the moon. His harp playing throughout is tasteful, subordinate to the tone of each song but dazzling when he lets loose.

Almost as great a revelation on this album is the guitar wizardry of Charlie Sexton, a renowned musician in his own right who recently ended a half-decade gig in Bob Dylan’s band. Reminiscent of the chops of the incomparable Mark Knopfler, Sexton’s playing on this disc is impeccable; Knopfler and Sexton don’t seek the spotlight, but their unerring performance of the right note at the right time is a joy to hear.

Musselwhite plays a Randy Newman song, “Burn Down the Cornfield,” with an almost spoken vocal and an eerie harmonica fill. “The Neighborhood” is a 6 minute Sexton composition featuring a vocal duet of the two Charlies, evoking memories of the Velvet Underground and the image of a stoned hippie girl swaying to the mesmerizing sound.

But for me the highlight of this thoroughly excellent album is “Alicia,” a haunting instrumental showcasing Musselwhite’s clear, elegiac harp playing. If I were to put lyrics to it, they would be, “Baby, we’ve had our hard times, I understand why you had to go…but I’m dying, babe, I miss you so.”

If this disc isn’t nominated for Album of the Year, that will only be because it is being reserved for Album of the Decade. Don’t miss it.