If ever there was an example of how travel has broadened Charlie Musselwhite's horizons as a bluesman, this is it. Divided into three distinct sections, "Continental Drifter" finds the harmonica master crossing cultural and stylistic boundaries in search of comfort and kindred spirits.
The album opens in a down-home, down-and-out vein, with the veteran bluesman working with his road band. Obsessed with a pair of doomed relationships, Musselwhite goes up against one woman who has mastered the art of just saying "No," and another who has acquired a bad habit of haunting his days and nights.
"Little Star," a blues-tinged ballad by jazz guitarist Barney Kessel links these and other band tracks to four tunes Musselwhite recorded with Cuban bandleader Eliades Ochoa and his ensemble, Cuarteto Patria. The tunes here are laced with Musselwhite's always expressive harp, alternately sung in English and Spanish, and colorfully accented by acoustic guitars and polyrhythmic percussion. Later, Musselwhite heads home, to the Delta, evoking his own roots with a couple of stark solo performances on which he plays harmonica and either acoustic or electric guitar.
Most listeners will probably favor one section of this blues journey over the others, preferring, perhaps, the familiar routes through the Deep South to the Latin excursions. Yet nearly every tune on the album projects a thoroughly seasoned soulfulness. Musselwhite, apparently, never leaves home without it.
Appearing Friday at Lewie's with Flatfoot Sam & the Educated Fools. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Charlie Musselwhite, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8123. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)
CAPTION: Charlie Musselwhite, a harmonica master crossing boundaries.