Sanctuary

Charlie Musselwhite, 2003

On this latest musical excursion, Charlie Musselwhite explores the themes that have always charged the potency of the blues: loneliness, despair, evil and dying. He casts a steady light on these shadowy topics, re-connecting the blues idiom to the haunting emotions that resonated so powerfully in its earliest incarnations. Ironically he draws inspiration for this blues from its most notorious offspring, rock and roll.

Through his own autobiographical originals, and on tunes by such artists as Ben Harper, Townes Van Zandt and Randy Newman, Musselwhite looks to the deepest of humanity's struggles. Savoy Brown's "Train to Nowhere" describes a man headed to hell and so numb with despair that he doesn't even care, despite the Blind Boys of Alabama exhorting "don't you ride that train!" With Ben Harper he laments, "what is left for the homeless child", while a Charlie Sexton original contributes, "it's raining pain and thundering fright in my neighborhood tonight."

SANCTUARY finds Charlie coming farther forward as a vocalist, with the warm but spooky qualities of his natural timbre bringing comfort to unsettling subjects. His deep voice and calm delivery evoke Leonard Cohen or Lou Reed, but with enough tinge of a drawl to never stray far from - or let the listener forget - his strong Southern roots and Memphis influences.

The instrumentals on SANCTUARY also contribute to this journey. The short, starkly beautiful "Route 19" - fittingly the final selection - is about the Mississippi rural highway along which lies the Musselwhite Cemetery. This and two other tunes including Eddie Harris' beautiful "Alicia" help sustain the album's melancholy ambience.

But even in this dark musical underworld there is refuge and redemption to be found, if bittersweet. On the title track, Charlie takes a song from the Obie-winning musical "The Gospel at Colonus" and shows that a blues song can help light the path to salvation, where "unending pain ends for me". Another original, "I Had Trouble", resounds not with lament but with celebration.

The Sanctuary Band, assembled for the first time for these sessions, is a legend in the making. Led by Austin guitar ace Charlie Sexton (ex teen phenomenon, and then on the road with Dylan and in countless sessions), the ensemble features the rhythm section of Jared Michael Nickerson (currently with Burnt Sugar and has toured with Bernie Worrall, The The and the Yohimbe Brothers) and Michael Jerome (currently with the Pleasure Club, and has recorded and toured with Richard Thompson and the Blind Boys of Alabama). The dialogue going on between Charlie Musselwhite and this world-class trio, captured by producer John Chelew (Blind Boys of Alabama, John Hiatt) at one of Hollywood's most storied studios, Capitol's legendary Studio B, is one of the most fascinating and palpable sub-plots of this great recording.

In an era where even the blues seems affected by the feel-good fluff of the 1990s, SANCTUARY is refreshingly real. In the same way that the early blues of Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker or Muddy Waters were not afraid to moan and wail, this CD tries to find comfort in the expression of pain and struggle, instead of diluting it with sweetened optimism. SANCTUARY, through its stories of real emotion, provides the kind of comfort that arrives from the honesty of the telling.

Reviews

  • Hues of the Blues - Globally Chicago Sun Times names Charlie Musselwhite's album "Sanctuary" as one of its Top Ten Blues albums for 2004: Charlie Musselwhite, "Sanctuary" (Real World): Even a boring Midwestern interstate feels like Highway 61 outside of Clarksdale, Miss., when you slip this harmonica great's finest album onto the car player. The indefatigable spirit of the American people is the one constant theme here. In the same article, Charlie is also awarded the honour of Blues Artist of the year: Finally, blues artist of the year honors go to Charlie Musselwhite, for the towering achievement that was "Sanctuary" as well as career achievement. Chicago Sun Times (USA)
  • Charlie's latest CD is his first for Peter Gabriel's Real World label, which is kind of appropriate since Musselwhite's brief has been increasingly international, or certainly cross-generic, in flavour in recent years. And just as his near-contemporary Bob Dylan did on Time Out of Mind, it seems that Charlie is also ready to look some serious demons in the eye: Sanctuary deals very largely in such subjects as death and dying, evil and sin, loneliness and despair. Heavyweight songwriters such as Townes Van Zandt and Randy Newman are among the sources Musselwhite has drawn from to find material suitable for his mood. The press release compares Musselwhite's vocal delivery on this album to that of Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed - I would also add a latter-day Johnny Cash - and this, together with the understated swamp-gospel mood conjured up by sometime John Hiatt producer John Chelew, lends the whole project the feel of a Staple Singers album overseen by Daniel Lanois. There's a real ambience here, a mood which kicks in with track one and doesn't let up until you press the eject button. It's a mood that can embrace material from artists as diverse as Savoy Brown (a superb, JJ Cale-like "Train To Nowhere" with support from The Blind Boys of Alabama) and soul-jazz saxophonist Eddie Harris (the beautifully melancholic instrumental, "Alicia"). It can encompass grittier blues too, and even encourage a tougher remake of Charlies's own "My Road Lies in Darkness", previously featured in an acoustic guitar version on Ace of Harps. With splendid guitar - and vocal - support from Charlie Sexton and a top-notch rhythm section, Sanctuary is as good an album as I can remember even from this most reliable of performers. Rating: 10 Blues In Britain
  • Musselwhite finds peace in singing the blues There are plenty of moments on Charlie Musselwhite's new CD, "Sanctuary," that suggest the apocalypse. Orphans wander the land, fields are set aflame, dread settles upon a town, and men travel on endless highways and trains leading to nowhere or worse. Yet for all their harrowing imagery, the songs offer solace to the veteran singer and harmonica player. "It's not a depressing record, but it's dark, because it reflects the dark times we're in, in America and the world," observes Musselwhite, who performs this Saturday at Buddy Guy's Legends. "In the same way, the blues is a place of comfort for the listener, I'd like to think this album is a place of comfort." That idea -- of the blues as a balm as well as an affliction -- is hardly new, but it has rarely been expressed as poetically as it has on "Sanctuary." It's a quiet record of unquiet emotions. "He's got a glimmer of light in his voice," says Texas guitar hero Charlie Sexton, whose silvery playing is a crucial ingredient in the 2 a.m.-confessional mood of "Sanctuary." "It's like a sweet uncle telling stories, `You know, long ago, your great granddaddy got run over by a truck, but before then he was a really cool guy.'" The 60-year-old Musselwhite has sought sanctuary in the blues wherever he's roamed, from his birthplace in Mississippi to his adolescence in Memphis to the beginnings of his career in Chicago in the mid-1960s to San Francisco. (He now makes his home in the Bay Area suburbs.) Musselwhite already had fallen in love with the blues and begun playing harmonica by the time he came to Chicago in 1964, but he arrived hoping only to get a job in a factory and with no plans of becoming a professional musician. He wound up becoming a driver for an exterminator and quickly learned his way around the city, discovering the South Side blues scene, where he soon became a fixture, hooking up with waitresses and meeting musicians. He began sitting in with Muddy Waters at gigs, an experience that both focused his attention "on something other than going out and having a good time every night, which I was really good at," and brought him growing recognition as a musician. On the song "I Had Trouble," Musselwhite recalls enduring poverty, tuberculosis, and being arrested while waiting for a bus at 2 a.m., then sentenced to 30 days in Cook County Jail (on what he says were bogus disturbing the peace charges). "Finally, somebody came down with a hundred bucks to get me out. By the time they got me I already had my overalls on and my boots," he remembers. His 1967 debut record, "Stand Back," was one of the first records released by an emerging crop of white artists who played the blues. Now, nearly 40 years and dozens of records later, Musselwhite still is breaking new ground. On "Sanctuary," he mixes his own songs with compositions by Ben Harper, jazz saxophonist Eddie Harris, Randy Newman, Townes Van Zandt, and others, bringing a haunted feel to the music that unites the diverse songs. Musselwhite's muted singing and sweet harmonica trills, Sexton's darting guitar leads, and the autumn-leaves-in-the-wind rustle of bass player Jared Michael Nickerson and drummer Michael Jerome put the emphasis on soul-searching instead of roof-raising, although many songs also have a propulsive drive to them. Chicago Tribune (USA)
  • Musselwhite has crafted one of his most intimate and moving records. Nick Cristiano, Philadelphia Inquirer (USA)
  • Raising the Level Harmonica virtuosos Musselwhite raises the level of emotional expression on his instrument beyond even the masters he learned from - Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson. On his 30th album, the grizzled veteran richly decorates his music with tellling nuance and chiseled detail. Joel Selvin, San Francisco Chronicle
  • Legendary Legendary is an overused term, but it's also the only word that suits this heavyweight blues harpist Time Out New York (USA)
  • Astonishing! On this, his 33rd release, Charlie Musselwhite continues to astonish. There is not one song on this recording that wil not move you. Musselwhite achieves an authoritative deep blues sound through spare understatement as only a master can. Off Beat Magazine (USA)
  • Amen! Sanctuary sets a standard for authenticity, vision and inspired excellence. Amen. All Music Guide (USA)
  • ...the world's greatest living blues harmonica player is going to blow the roof off.....and yes, there are only 10 little holes in that thing. New York Press (USA)
  • His Finest It's one of his finest....Major kudos to Musselwhite, whose extraordinarily fluid harmonica lines and warm, laid-back vocals make this record compelling Detroit News and Free Press (USA)
  • Flawless Execution! Damn! This white mother scratcher combines Chicago style electric blues with a Man In Black bleariness that will put a break in your neck, a stride in your step and fear in your heart. Flawless execution, amazing production, and stunning cameos from Ben Harper and The Blind Boys of Alabama make 'Sanctuary' the kind of blues album that all those young, hot shit, guitar-slinging, SRV-wannabe-ing punks tell their underage girlfriends they are destined to make...as if those poor girls are listening. Ever feel like you should have quit your job, head down South and shoot dirty pool with the devil himeself? Let me introduce you to your soundtrack. CIMSMusic Stores (USA)
  • Flawless Execution! Damn! This white mother scratcher combines Chicago style electric blues with a Man In Black bleariness that will put a break in your neck, a stride in your step and fear in your heart. Flawless execution, amazing production, and stunning cameos from Ben Harper and The Blind Boys of Alabama make 'Sanctuary' the kind of blues album that all those young, hot shit, guitar-slinging, SRV-wannabe-ing punks tell their underage girlfriends they are destined to make...as if those poor girls are listening. Ever feel like you should have quit your job, head down South and shoot dirty pool with the devil himeself? Let me introduce you to your soundtrack. CIMSMusic Stores (USA)
  • Flawless Execution! Damn! This white mother scratcher combines Chicago style electric blues with a Man In Black bleariness that will put a break in your neck, a stride in your step and fear in your heart. Flawless execution, amazing production, and stunning cameos from Ben Harper and The Blind Boys of Alabama make 'Sanctuary' the kind of blues album that all those young, hot shit, guitar-slinging, SRV-wannabe-ing punks tell their underage girlfriends they are destined to make...as if those poor girls are listening. Ever feel like you should have quit your job, head down South and shoot dirty pool with the devil himeself? Let me introduce you to your soundtrack. CIMSMusic Stores (USA)
  • Spellbinding! Once every few years, a blues album comes along that's so overwhelmingly powerful, so moving that it transcends the genre and gains across-the-board acclaim. Harmonica great Charlie Musselwhite's first album for Peter Gabriel's Real World label, "Sanctuary," refutes any critic who dares to say they don't write great blues songs anymore. The themes are often painful, but there's an overriding sense of hope.... It's spellbinding, haunting music that cries out to be heard. Chicago Sun-Times (USA)
  • Blues Album of The Year?! “Now 60, Musselwhite, newly signed with Peter Gabriel's Real World label, has produced a brilliant work that steps away from the blues and takes on the bitterroot, hardscrabble feel of Johnny Cash's later works or Tom Waits' entire catalog. The performances are chilling, beautiful and dark, wandering the crossroads where the blues was born, but bringing to mind the years before Robert Johnson met the devil there. Can you still call this a blues album? If so, it could be the blues album of the year." San Jose Mercury News (USA)
  • Charlie Musselwhite: Down Home Blues, from Deep in the Mississippi Loneliness, wandering and death - the stuff of deep blues - were familiar companions when Charlie Musselwhite performed at Joe's Pub on Feb. 25. His set drew on his next album, "Sanctuary" (Real World), which is due for release on April 6, and it distilled the blues in songs from Ben Harper, Randy Newman, Townes Van Zandt and "The Gospel at Colonus." For an encore, he played a tune of his own, named after the Mississippi back road where his family cemetery is: "Route 19." It was a brief, unhurried harmonica solo conjuring train whistles and solitary desolation. Mr. Musselwhite often reserved his harmonica for the finales of his songs. First he sang, in a voice seasoned and conversational, understating stark sentiments like the ones in his own song "My Road Lies in Darkness." Then he let his harmonica take over, probing the songs with jabbing riffs, low moaning notes and quivering bends. He went for pithiness, not flash. Every phrase was a wordless epigram, and each note had a precisely weighted tone: sharp or hollow, airy or thick, as if Mr. Musselwhite knew every reed of every harmonica intimately. Mr. Musselwhite brought with him the band that made "Sanctuary": Charlie Sexton (from Bob Dylan's band) on guitar, Jared Nickerson on bass and Michael Jerome on drums. They had considered every arrangement, touching on rural slide guitar, Chicago blues and near-psychedelic drones (in Mr. Sexton's "The Neighborhood"), planning how a guitar tremolo would mesh with a harmonica trill. It sounded like a roadhouse band with chamber-music finesse, and it reached inside every song. (Jon Pareles) New York Times (USA)
  • It's a tribute to his powers that the instrumental "Route 19" - the road that runs past the Musselwhite family cemetery - can sum up his talents in a memorable 70 seconds. Big Joe Williams called Charlie Musselwhite "one of the greatest living harmonica players of country blues"...On this album, his first for Peter Gabriel's Real World label...he gets the chance ot show off his vocal prowess on Randy Newman's "Let's Burn Down The Cornfield" as well as excercise his jazz chops on "Alicia". But it is the Ben Harper-written and backed opening track "Homeless Child", which impresses most, along with the Musselwhite original, "My Road Lies In Darkness". And it's a tribute to his powers that the instrumental "Route 19" - the road that runs past the Musselwhite family cemetery - can sum up his talents in a memorable 70 seconds. (John Clarke) The Times (UK)
  • Blues Potency Affirmed The most striking thing about 'Sanctuary" is his voice; a mild, low moan that has the same haunted quality as the older voices on Alan Lomax field recordings....'Sanctuary' is full of moody shadows and ominous portents, both in Musselwhite's own material...and in the judicious covers of songs by Townes Van Zandt, Ben Harper, Sonny Landreth and Randy Newman whose song 'Burn Down The Cornfield' takes on a darkly sinister tone, deepened by the coiled-snake slide guitar from the former Dylan sideman Charlie Sexton. A distinctive and rewarding set that affirms thatt blues potency isn't just a matter of brute power and technique" (Andy Gill) The Independent (UK)
  • A Masterpiece Harmonica giant Charlie Musselwhite has evolved from stone traditionalist to blues experimentalist in recent years, with excursions into Tejano, country, and jazz. Now, with the help of Blind Boys of Alabama producer John Chelew, the 60-year-old has made a masterpiece that balances his music's Delta soul with sonic innovation. Musselwhite's world-weary singing is perfect for the haunting textures that the scraped and bell-toned guitar strings bring to "Train to Nowhere" and Randy Newman's "Burn Down the Cornfield," songs where the fog of danger hangs in the air like ectoplasm. Slide-guitar guests Charlie Sexton and Ben Harper bring rippling energy to the bad-luck story "Shootin' for the Moon" and the Harper-penned spiritual "Homeless Child." And the Blind Boys' zesty old-time harmonies turn Musselwhite's biographical "I Had Trouble" into a gospel-tent confession. But, if the voice of God appears anywhere, it's in Musselwhite's always lush and mesmerizing harmonica. --Ted Drozdowski Amazon.com (USA)