MudSlide Charley plays an album release show at the Union Club Fri., March 2, at 9 PM.
Fourteen years is a long time to — well, it’s a long time to maintain anything. But to hold a local band together for that long? Between the wacko personalities and self-important puffery rampant among working musicians and the shrinking opportunities to play live in front of a crowd, the cards are stacked against such longevity for a local crew. But MudSlide Charley has endured. They may not be in a class by themselves, but it doesn’t take very long to call roll.
Born in 2004, this blues love-child of Missoula music veterans just keeps on chooglin’. A few musicians have come and gone, but the band seems to have coalesced — the current lineup has been in place for at least 10 years now, with one significant exception. Lee Rizzo came onboard about a year ago, replacing lead singer Emi Kodama, who was MudSlide Charley’s first female member.
“A friend told me that their singer would soon be leaving,” Rizzo says, “so I dropped off a note at Bernice’s.” In typical Missoula fashion, Rizzo already knew bandleader and singer/guitarist Marco Littig, having worked for him and his wife Christine, erstwhile owners of the popular bakery. “Timing is everything,” Rizzo says, laughing.
As for the change in personnel, Littig loves the influence Rizzo has brought to the band. Where Kodama took their sound in a more R&B and Stax direction, he says, they can’t help but take on a bit of a different flavor with Rizzo’s arrival. “The greatest thing about this band is that it has evolved.” Words and Bones, their new album, bears him out. A few songs break new ground for MudSlide Charley, departing from the greasy gutbucket blues that have always turned Littig’s musical crank. He’s a student of the genre, and the stories from the mid-20th century “great migration” of rural blacks from the south to the job-rich cities like Detroit and Cincinnati inform his compositions. “We’re still suffering from our inability to deal with racism,” he says. “There’s a constant reframing of the narrative.” Littig’s own sense of place also affects the band, which he sees as an established part of the local milieu. They played through the summer as a four-piece after Kodama left to care for her newborn. “We kept playing for the community,” he says. “We played these shitty little bar gigs.”
Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to find more tie-dyed-in-the-wool Missoulians than this groovy bunch. Drummer Roger Moquin plays with a handful of bands and typically travels to local gigs on a bike, pulling his nested drums on a trailer. Bassist Tahj Kjelland has a following as a rapper, and has released several hip-hop and spoken-word albums under the name Tahjbo. Phil Hamilton is a multi-instrumentalist with a long Missoula résumé that stretches back at least 25 years to his days banging drums for the Moonlighters, the legendary R&B band that held court every Friday night at the Union Club since forever. Recently, the harmonica and sax-man has taken the plunge into the intimidating waters of songwriting, contributing six songs to Words and Bones. Littig wrote three of the album’s 13 songs, and Rizzo penned two.
The band recorded 16 songs at Black National Recordings, where Chris Baumann tracked them live over three sessions. Thirteen tunes made the final cut. “This is our most diverse album,” Littig says. “Multiple voices in a band is huge.”
Speaking of huge voices, Rizzo’s vocal chops are on full display on “Death Letter Blues,” a Son House song recorded live during a Union Club show. Her raw passion and burnished growl are almost frightening, but perfect for the bare-knuckled blues classic. “That song,” she says about her off-the-chain performance, “it’s hard not to go there.”
Their originals are mostly solid blues exercises, celebrating the southern blues and soul with obvious affection. Hamilton’s riffs reveal a deep knowledge of the genre’s varied styles, from New Orleans second-line rhythms to the electric stomp of Chicago blues. A couple of the songs, though, like Littig’s “Love Machine” and Rizzo’s “Birdie,” veer sharply away from the blues idiom into Americana, or mellow pop. Between the band’s natural evolution and the influence of Rizzo, who also plays guitar and washboard, Words and Bones hints at a new direction while still showcasing the strengths of a straight-up Delta blues band. A listen through MudSlide Charley’s four releases makes the progression obvious. The rough and ready shambling of a hungry blues outfit captured live on their 2008 debut has taken quite a twist in the last 10 years to become a mature, confident blues machine that isn’t afraid to take a few detours.