Best of the Vanguard Years features 20 tracks compiled from six releases. Among these are 14 tracks from three seminal ’60s Musselwhite albums on Vanguard, including five cuts from Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite’s South Side Band (1967), three from Stone Blues (1968) and six from Tennessee Woman (1969).
As all of these recordings are already available on CD, Best of the Vanguard Years works most effectively as a sampler and an introduction for the fan who has little or no Musselwhite in his or her collection. It’s a good enough place to start: By the mid-’60s, Musselwhite was in his early-to-mid-20s and already a powerful harp player, having performed with the likes of Homesick James and Robert Nighthawk on Maxwell Street before venturing out on his own. He fronted his own band in Chicago for several years before moving to California in 1970.
Uninitiated listeners be forewarned, however, that these are ’60s recordings, and some aspects of the performances — particularly the tone and attack of guitarist Harvey Mandel and organist Barry Goldberg — reflect the standards of the times and sound somewhat dated today. Musselwhite’s harp tone, culled as it was from Little Walter, Big Walter, Junior Wells and others, is simply timeless.
Also included on the CD are the harp instrumental "Rockin’ My Boogie," from the 1966 anthology Chicago/The Blues/Today! Volume 3, which teamed Musselwhite with Big Walter Horton and his band; and two tracks from John Hammond’s 1965 release, So Many Roads.
The CD closes with three tracks from the 1994 Vanguard anthology, The Blues Never Die, featuring "Too Hot to Touch" — a funky 1993 recording — and two Otis Spann tunes recorded in the ’60s in Shakey Jake’s basement, with Magic Sam on guitar. Big names notwithstanding, the last two cuts are a plain mess and probably of interest to only the most fiendish fans.
— Bryan Powell