Steve Miller, Jimmie Vaughan and Charlie Musselwhite at center stage (L-R) at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rose Theater. (Photo credit: Lawrence Sumulong/Jazz at Lincoln Center)
At Saturday night’s Jazz at Lincoln Center installment of The Blues Triangle: Memphis, Texas, Chicago--the second of two weekend shows curated by Steve Miller and also starring Jimmie Vaughan and Charlie Musselwhite (and backing musicians on piano, Hammond B3 organ, bass drums, trumpet and alto, tenor and baritone saxophones)—Miller opened with “44 Blues,” crediting the much covered tune to Blues Hall of Fame pianist/singer Little Brother Montgomery while noting that it had “an element of Delta blues-which is why I picked it.”
Which made perfect sense, in that the three-hour concert essentially served as Miller’s “Blues 101” course covering the genre's folk/country blues origins in the Mississippi Delta region and its varied branches into urban stylings, most notably Chicago and Texas.
Being himself a Milwaukee-born Texas native who apprenticed in Chicago with such local blues legends as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and whose Steve Miller Band was originally called the Steve Miller Blues Band, Miller was well-suited to the task. He noted how his first job after quitting college in Austin and moving to San Francisco was a much-needed $10-a-night gig playing bass for blues guitarist/singer Lighnin’ Hopkins, and sang “Mercury Blues,” having first heard it from K.C. Douglas while growing up in Dallas, later covering it on his quadruple-platinum 1976 album Fly Like an Eagle.
Dallas native Vaughan likewise has roots in Texas blues, while Mississippian Musselwhite—a.k.a. Memphis Charlie--actually is the blues, having preceded his younger associates in soaking up both Delta and Chicago blues and issuing his classic first album, Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite's Southside Band, in 1966.
Still a blues harmonica player of impeccable taste, Musselwhite played Sonny Boy Williamson II’s “Help Me” from that first album, recalling how he was at the fabled Big John’s blues club in Chicago when legendary blues pianist Otis Spann suggested he record it—and when he told Spann that he didn’t know the words, Spann wrote them down for him.
This was part of a group of Chicago blues showpieces for Musselwhite, mostly associated with the great Chicago blues harmonica player Little Walter, who, noted Miller, employed electronic distortion techniques long before Link Wray and Jimi Hendrix, and brought “a sweet jazz finesse to the blues.” Miller, Vaughan and upright bassist Yasushi Nakamura tripled the backing behind Musselwhite’s soul vocal and harp-blowing on Little Walter’s 1956 single “Just a Feeling,” and on “It Ain’t Right,” another Little Walter single from ’56, the two guitarists provided the requisite chugging rhythm.
Miller rose to the occasion with his vocal lead on Little Walter’s No. 1 1955 signature R&B hit “My Babe,” with both Musselwhite and Vaughan singing backup and University of Miami Dean of Music Shelly Berg standing out instrumentally on piano. Vaughan, remembering hearing Bobby Blue Bland’s version of Charles Brown’s “Driftin’ Blues,” in high school, took the vocal lead on it and Jimmy Reed’s 1962 hit “Baby What’s Wrong,” great singer-songwriter guitarist/harmonica player Reed also being “big in Dallas” when Vaughan was in high school.
The well-structured show—pared down, Mller said, from 400 songs originally considered—also covered other blues luminaries including Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, Otis Rush and Texas blues guitarist Freddie King, who had a Saturday afternoon TV show in Dallas, said Vaughan.
“If you played Dallas, you had to do a Freddie King song to get a gig, no matter what genre you played,” he said. Observing that “sometimes the blues is rock ‘n’ roll,” Vaughan also performed “Roll, Roll, Roll,” a Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson tune that he covered on his 2010 album Plays Blues, Ballads & Favorites.
The evening ended appropriately with blues guitar pioneer Robert Johnson’s blues staple “Sweet Home Chicago.”