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Spontaneous warmth from two veteran bluesmen

Legendary bluesmen Elvin Bishop and Charlie Musselwhite release their first-ever joint full-length. It’s Chicago-style blues at its pristine best

Guitarist and singer Elvin Bishop is a Blues Hall of Famer
Guitarist and singer Elvin Bishop is a Blues Hall of Famer

There are few things that can be more enjoyable than to listen to two veteran bluesmen jamming and having fun together. Guitarist and singer Elvin Bishop, and harmonica player and singer Charlie Musselwhite are, respectively, 77 and 76. And the two recently released what is their first-ever collaboration on a full-length album. The album is titled 100 Years of Blues. If they wanted to be technically accurate, they could have titled it 111 Years of Blues because Bishop has been playing since 1963, and Musselwhite since 1966. The two septuagenarians are long-time friends and have played together often during their storied careers so it is a bit intriguing that their first joint album comes out only now.

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But no one’s complaining. Like a breath of fresh air, 100 Years of Blues works its magic from the get-go. The two bluesmen (they’re accompanied by Bob Welsh on piano; and Kid Anderson on the electric upright bass) are so comfortable and relaxed when they are playing together that the album, although recorded in a studio and released on the famous blues label, Alligator Records, can sound like they are playing on a porch, relaxed, comfortable, and having oodles of fun.

It’s old school Chicago-style blues—honest, upfront, and simple. But it showcases the legendary talent of the two bluesmen. Bishop and Musselwhite are both Blues Hall of Famers (Bishop, incidentally, was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) and are widely acknowledged to be treasured virtuosos of the genre. The idea for the album emanated in 2017 when the two began collaborating on songs that they would then play for live audiences. The response was so overwhelmingly exuberant that the duo decided to capture some of that spirit in the studio. Each brought to the studio roughly half of the dozen songs on the album and that’s how the album was born.

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The informal, easy-going nature of the recordings is evident from the first track itself. It’s titled Birds of a Feather and Bishop’s vocals begin with these lines: “Hey, we are birds of a feather/ Whole bunch of blues lovers gathered together/ Fixin’ to get loose, have a good time/ Like Brother Charlie says, “I ain’t lying”/ So clap, stomp, holler and yell/We’re all friends here, so what the hell?” I can only imagine what a song that opens with those lyrics can do to a crowd at a gig. Of course, there’s Bishop’s trademark guitar riffs, played presumably on his faithful Gibson that he has nicknamed Red Dog; and Musselwhite’s sweet harmonica licks.

Musselwhite and Bishop both moved to Chicago in the early 1960s. That city was then the Mecca for blues, dotted with blues clubs that pretty much were open all night till dawn. They honed their skills with bands of their own by gigging at those Chicago clubs, and also watched performances by the city’s blues greats such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. For white musicians such as Musselwhite and Bishop, those famous bluesmen became mentors. Sometimes, late at night, when such mentors were exhausted from performing, young musicians would be welcome to sit in and that is one of the ways in which Bishop and Musselwhite cut their teeth and honed their skills in playing Chicago-style blues.

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The Chicago style, which emerged possibly in the mid to late 1950s was like an evolution of classic southern blues but with an urban, city feel to it—both in terms of lyrics, and, eventually, in the form of electric instrumentation. On 100 Years of Blues, you can listen to two of the finest exponents of that genre, both in their twilight years and yet teeming with vibrant energy. It’s a good mix, the album. Both musicians sing on it and the tracks vary from fresh versions of old school blues tunes that they’ve played before such as Blues, Why Do You Worry Me? and Midnight Hour Blues to newer ones that deal with more contemporary themes.

For example, on Old School, Bishop extols the advantages of being exactly that—old school—when he sings: “Yeah, man/ I’m and old fashioned dude/ Tell the truth/ No tattoos/ Don’t fool with no Facebook/ No Twitters and tweets/ Call me on the phone/ If you want to talk to me.” It’s an endearing little tune coming from these seasoned bluesmen and there are cheeky twists too: “Yeah, call me on the phone/ Telephone’s high tech as I get/ Now, don’t send me no email/ Send me a female”. On another new song, What the Hell?, they get a bit more serious. With the US presidential elections barely a month away, the target is current occupant of the White House: “He is the president but wants to be king/ 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?

It’s a laid-back album, 100 Years of Blues, but it is spontaneous, and its depth and intimacy is infectious, as all good Chicago blues songs tend to be. And although at a whisker less than an hour, it is a short album, the effortless ease with which the vocals, guitar, harmonica, and piano weave together make it one that you can play on repeat for hours. Oh, and there’s a surprise too. The title track, tucked away at the end of the album is a wickedly detailed and cheeky biography of the two bluesmen (no spoilers; check it out yourself!).

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Musselwhite and Bishop are likely among the best exponents of the genre, and for these unprecedentedly troubled times, their first joint album can induce a welcome glow of soothing warmth.

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

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@sanjoynarayan

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