Bentley's Bandstand: Charlie Musselwhite, Declan O'Rourke, AKA Doc Pomus

By , Columnist

Charlie Musselwhite

Charlie Musselwhite, Juke Joint Chapel. Whether he is walking into a room or commanding a bandstand, Charlie Musselwhite exudes a warm and powerful presence like very few musicians. He has an aura of someone who was there at the start, back when young white people went into the Chicago clubs in the early '60s to see Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter and all the others. They did it because they'd become possessed by urban blues, just as if someone had extended a lifeline to them to cross over to the other side. Before long people like Musselwhite, Paul Butterfield, Michael Bloomfield, Elvin Bishop and Barry Goldberg had become regulars in the Windy City's blues bars and musical history was getting ready to be made. Charlie Musselwhite, born in Mississippi and raised in Memphis, had traveled north to find the blues and once he did he knew he'd hit the musical jackpot.

It wasn't long before the man's first album, Stand Back, appeared in 1966, and for the next six decades Musselwhite has practically led the class for modern blues. At this point, it doesn't matter where he's from or what color he is: his fine, fine feeling trumps everything else. The musician's harmonica chops are always directly to the point, hotter than a lit torch, and never get lost in anything beyond the job at hand, which is to help listeners find a better place. Then there's the vocals, which is what separates the men from the mice. Charlie Musselwhite can sing blues, then and now, with a bottomless well of soul. He's got a smile in his voice, no matter how low down the lyrics are, which is one of his strongest secrets. It might be the end of the world and the walls are all tumbling down, but this is someone who will extend a hand and walk you right into the light. Musselwhite has a presence that never ends, and on this live album recorded last year in Clarksdale, Mississippi, time stands still while one man and his harmonica show the way. To hear a higher calling, go no further than the almost eight-minute album ender "Cristo Redentor." Clouds part instantly behind him and the rainbows revolving around his head are all real.

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Declan O'Rourke, Mag Pai Zai. How do the Irish do it, even if they learn how to perform and play guitar in Australia like Declan O'Rourke did? When someone has zeroed in on this level of ability it really doesn't matter where they began, because it's instantly obvious they are meant to do this. But maybe it's the darkness at the corners of so many Irish songwriters, because O'Rourke definitely sounds like he's carrying around an extra anchor or two, something that ties him to a tradition that can be as harrowing as it is proud. A listen to a song like "Time Machine," "Caterpillar DNA" or "Langley's Requiem" is to feel a biting wind blow right through you, and have you reaching for the first warmth available. Heaviness has never had a better home.

Like all great things there are two sides to this story, and for Declan O'Rourke that means songs of love and belief that are among the best being written today. As simply as it sounds, "Be Strong and Believe" is like a prayer that works, written for a friend's loss of their father. It becomes a musical mantra, like other songs here, "The Hardest Fight" and the instant classic "Galileo." To hear something this possessed by infinity is to know that the Irish really are different from everyone else. They can have an intimate relationship with romantic understanding like it's been drilled into their DNA, and from there takes intriguing forms out into the ozone. Artists like O'Rourke write with a misty timelessness in their pens that takes us back to the beginning of time. From there, anything can happen. An album like Mag Pai Zai is a calling card to greatness from the Emerald Isle — once again.

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AKA Doc Pomus, directed by Peter Miller and Will Hechter. There are certain music documentaries that will ring true forever, and it would be hard to think of one more moving than this film about one-time singer and songwriter Doc Pomus. Born Jerome Felder in Brooklyn, Pomus almost willed himself into music, fighting back insecurities that included his childhood polio that put him on crutches at age six. After an early attempt at becoming a blues singer inspired by titan Big Joe Turner, Pomus found his calling in turning his deeply soulful take on life and love into some of the very best songs ever written. From early hits like Ray Charles' "Lonely Avenue" and the Drifters' "Save the Last Dance for Me," Doc Pomus continued right into the post-Elvis Presley era with "Little Sister," "Viva Las Vegas" and many more. He often wrote with Mort Shuman and later Dr. John and others, but the center of that creative universe was Pomus' ability to zero in on the deepest parts of the human spirit and somehow turn them into popular songs. It was almost like an alchemy beyond belief, one where an inner imagination runs wild and the brain and body struggle to keep up.

This absolutely stunning documentary, steered forward for the past decade by daughter Sharyn Felder, is a testament to American music that we likely won't see again. It captures the lusty spirit at the near-birth of rock and roll when the Coasters, Dion and all the other pioneers were writing the rules as they went along. Early labels like Atlantic Records were fueled by the mad frenzy of their owners to make a name for themselves, and of course a boatload of money, so they could take even more daring musical odysseys in the future. Doc Pomus' prominent stature in that scene is always sparked by his thirst to be in on the action, and to somehow validate his place on the planet. Naturally, there was a mountain of heartache to go along with all the glory, and in the telling of his life we can see why he possessed the prominence he did. There was simply no one else like him. Lou Reed's narration from Pomus' own journals are like peeking into someone's most private moments, and bring the film all the way home to its essence: for many, many years a giant walked among us, even if he wasn't much over five-feet-five inches tall and on a pair of well-worn crutches. This magic moment for sure.

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Bill Bentley got his first drum set in 1965 and still has it. He's been a deejay, record store clerk, publicist, writer, concert promoter, record producer and a&r director, sometimes all at once. He's worked at KUT-FM, Austin City Limits, L.A. Weekly, Slash Records, Warner Bros. Records and Vanguard…

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