CHARLEY MUSSELWHITE’S SOUTH SIDE BAND Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite’s South Side Band (Pure Pleasure)

The 1966 or 1967 debut (even the interweb doesn’t seem to know) by Chicago harmonica player Musselwhite has been hailed as a blues classic, bridging the gap between the rock and the twelve-bar genre. (The sleeve note’s opening sentence casually mentions him alongside bluesmen you’ve heard of (Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, Steve Miller) and some you possibly haven’t (Jim Schwall, Corky Siegel).)  It probably didn’t hurt that his South Side Band included former Chess Records session drummer Fred Below, Barry Goldberg on keyboards (then between gigs with Bob Dylan and The Electric Flag) and guitarist Harvey Mandel, later of Canned Heat and a potential Mick Taylor replacement in The Rolling Stones.

At its best, “Stand Back!” is volcanic. “Strange Land” is one of those moments, a concise distillation of what Dylan was doing, musically at least, a year earlier. It’s side one of “Bringing It All Back Home” and side one of “Highway 61 Revisited” melted into a kind of blank, unvarying, speedfreak rock ‘n’ roll, with a thin (wild mercury, perhaps?) organ sound and Mandel’s guitar stabbing out a percussive rhythm. Opener “Baby Will You Please Help Me” provides an early showcase for Musselwhite’s big, gulping harp sound and gruff, commanding voice. If “Help Me” inevitably sounds slightly anaemic alongside Van Morrison’s mighty Caledonia Soul Orchestra rendition on “It’s Too Late To Stop Now”, a gritty, abrasive “Early In The Morning” tears strips off the barely conscious version Slowhand recorded for “Backless”, Musselwhite sounding like he’s gargling the lyrics. Below’s drumming deserves special mention, especially his rattling, machine gun fills on “Cha Cha The Blues” and “My Baby”.

Possibly more historical curio than buried treasure to modern ears, this exclamatory album is nevertheless well worth investigation if your tastes include the rowdier end of electric blues. Pure Pleasure’s 180 gram vinyl reissue (“The most beautiful music format in the world”, declares the cover, entirely reasonably) isn’t quite an audiophile delight, but neither is it the kind of CD-cut-to-vinyl waste of shelf space that less scrupulous reissue concerns foist on an unsuspecting marketplace. It sounds like an honest reproduction of a slightly boxy recording.