Charlie Musselwhite on Ben Harper: "Every Time We Play Is Like Playing for the First Time"

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Michael Weintrob
Charlie Musselwhite is scheduled to perform with Ben Harper during McDowell Mountain Music Festival 2014 on Sunday, March 30, at Margaret T. Hance Park.
Charlie Musselwhite is no stranger to the blues. In fact, that's where the harmonica master spent most of his career, from Mississippi to Memphis to Chicago to Northern California, where he makes his home -- Musselwhite's career in the blues has spanned 50 years. Along the way, however, he's also performed with a who's who of musicians, including Tom Waits and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder.

More recently, Musselwhite joined forces with guitarist Ben Harper. The two had collaborated on and off for more than a decade, and after years spent trying to find enough time in busy schedules to record together, the inspired duo churned out Get Up! in just a couple days.

Released a little more than one year ago, Harper and Musselwhite -- with Harper's band, the Relentless 7 -- are touring behind the blues- and soul-drenched album that sounds straight out of 1960s, and positively now. The pair are the featured headliners on Sunday, March 30, at the McDowell Mountain Music Festival.

Up on the Sun caught up with Musselwhite by phone recently as he was relaxing at home. Forthright and amiable, Musselwhite shared his thoughts on making Get Up! with Harper, performing at the White House, the early influence of the label he's now recording on (Stax), and a brief history of his life blowing the blues.

I wanted to start with Get Up!, the album you made with Ben Harper, whom you're performing with at the McDowell Mountain Music Festival. I think this is a great album. It's diverse but centered as well. In your eyes, is it a soul album or a blues album?

I think you'd you call it blues. I remember telling Ben it sounded like a new way of being traditional. It's traditional, but so modern at the same time. It's really interesting. It has all the elements of blues, but it feels fresh and new and up to date.

It's interesting you say that, because a lot of reviews, including one I did for Relix magazine, say it sounds classic, like an old record that just happens to have been made today. Is this what you mean, or how would you say it's modern?

[Laughs] It just has the elements that make it real by using the substance in the genre of blues, but it has the feeling of being . . . the energy of it is very real and moving and right now! It's a modern energy with traditional background or base.

The album's on Stax and back in the 1960s, the place this album feels like it's from, that label was a hotbed for soul and even blues with Albert King, for example. It got me wondering since you grew up in Memphis, how much of that original Stax sound might have influenced what you were doing at the time?

It's hard to say example, but Estelle Axton, one of the owners of Stax -- it was her and her brother, Jeff Stewart, which is how they got the name Stax -- she was a friend of my mothers. She used to come over to the house often and give her the latest releases. I was really close to what was going on with Stax in a way, so it's really fitting to be recording for Stax now. That music was so powerful it went around the world. It really affected everybody. It really left its mark. "Green Onions" is still a great song today, and those songs sound as good today as the first time you heard them.

That's what makes a classic album, and some of the cuts on Get Up! can be considered in that same light.

It doesn't matter when it was recorded because it is timeless. It will always be fresh.


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Margaret T. Hance Park

1134 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, AZ

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