When Marco Littig talks about the blues, he leans in, gesturing with a measured but rolling rhythm. In the clatter of coffee cups and chattering of people that fills Bernice’s Bakery—which Littig owns with his wife, Christine,—the frontman of local blues stalwarts MudSlide Charley explains exactly what it is about the Mississippi blues that gets at his core.
“It begins with a pulse, and it’s a driving pulse,” he says. “It [often] doesn’t have a chord change. We start off in D, we end in D, and it’s all in D. One chord.” He pauses. “But it’s not about the chord. The chord is the sonic template which different harmonizing lines play over to create an almost hypnotic driving force. That’s essentially what defines Mississippi blues. It’s about telling stories.”
One story on MudSlide Charley’s new debut album, Goes Like This, is a song called “21st Century Watermelon Blues.” It’s a sludgier blues tune, uplifted by the dreamy tone of Phil Hamilton’s saxophone. On the surface, it’s about how watermelons have lost their flavor and gone seedless since Littig was a kid. There used to be a lusciousness to them, he says. “There was that spitting seeds at your siblings, that quality of summer.” But the real story is about loss, in general.
“One angle is political—we’re genetically mutating our food. That stinks,” he says. “But a bigger more deeper sense is, what is that [loss] doing to our soul and our experience?”
Littig knows a bit about following his soul. In his mid-20s, he dropped out of a doctorate program to play the blues.
“I was spending too much time at the library and it wasn’t working for me,” he says. “I started asking myself, ‘What is it that I love?’”
Littig cashed in on his remaining tuition and bought a guitar, spending the next several years playing music in Minneapolis, then Missoula. In Missoula, Littig co-founded Cash for Junkers, whom he played with for six of their seven years before splitting to form MudSlide Charley in the fall of 2004 with harmonica/guitar player, Charlie Hopkins.
“[Cash for Junkers] were going more swing jazz,” he says, “and I wanted to do more blues. One is leaning toward a sophisticated sound, and the other one’s going for raw. I was playing too much with my brain and not enough with my gut.”
Now in his 40s, Littig has found his niche with MudSlide Charley. In just over three years, the band’s gone from a duo to a five-piece, playing most notably at the Kettlehouse Brewery every other Monday night (a gig currently on hold with the brewery needing more space for canning operations). They frequently visit the Helena bar Miller’s Crossing, Hamilton’s Bitterroot Blues Festival, and travel to Montana schools as part of the Young Audiences program, which teaches kids about music. This past February, the band played a four-hour show at the Union Club, which they recorded and edited down into Goes Like This.
The nine-track effort mixes a handful of originals with covers by greats like Robert Johnson and Hound Dog Taylor. The rhythm section—consisting of bassist Mike Freemole and drummer Roger Moquin—comes from a jazz background, which Littig says adds a distinctive flavor to the band’s Mississippi blues-style backbone. For harmonica/tenor sax player Hamilton, the Union Club recording was only the second time he’d played with MudSlide Charley as a regular member. But Littig says that was a small hurdle considering he, Hopkins and Hamilton all have the same approach to playing the blues.
“When [Hamilton] would play with Charlie it was give and take,” Littig explains. “They’re wildly different harmonica players but both incredibly talented…The way they played off each other had everything to do with listening and intuition, which is what music is about.”
While Littig has been the primary songwriter for Mudslide Charley, Hopkins has written several tunes, as well—though “written” might not be the word for what he does. His song “Mo’ Women,” which made it onto the final cut of Goes Like This, is smooth and sauntering, and includes clever lines about the fine quality of “Missoula mamas.” But nobody knew that song until Hopkins made it up, right then and there at the Union Club. Hopkins (who is a meandering mushroom picker in the summer) just has that sort of nomadic, spontaneous quality to him, Littig explains.
“He’ll kick into a harmonica rhythm like he did, and it’s up to us to come up with another piece of the fabric straight away,” says Littig. “And that night, we did.”
Other originals like “Potlicker” (about a “wily” and “broke-down” character) and the more rockin’ “Judgment Day” provide a unique perspective to the album’s covers.
Littig plans to do more originals for MudSlide Charley’s next recording. Not long ago, some drunken audience members heckled the band for not being original enough. Littig was annoyed at first, but he says that he took the statement to heart.
“My heroes are so huge in my eyes—Johnny Shines, Hound Dog Taylor, Muddy Waters…These are all the giants of that crossover time where country blues was first meeting electricity,” Littig says. “My pursuit is in engaging in their dialog. So I think originality comes [from] striving for that authenticity.”
MudSlide Charley plays a CD-release show at the Union Club Saturday, May 17, at 9 PM. Free.