Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite – Get up! (2013)

Not sure I could’ve found a better album to start this year with than this amazing collaboration between Ben Harper and blues harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite. By that I mean that it’s the first album issued in 2013 that I’ve listened to so far in the year, and were I a superstitious man, I’d take it as a good omen for months which lie ahead. Of course, normally the blues would slowly spell out sorrow, but this album doesn’t offer that kind of blues. It’s not the dark, crushing, great-depression era blues of Son House – if anything, I think this record is born of a fierce feeling of anger, distilled in the harsh, callous cadence of the blues.

Photo by Danny Clinch

Photo by Danny Clinch

I’ve known Ben Harper’s music for a long while, although I can’t say I’ve been an avid follower. I love his voice, the groove in his breath, his vigorous guitar technique, but so far I haven’t felt the hook bite my lip when it comes to his albums. “Get up!”, however, got me listening like never before, in no small part because of Charlie Musselwhite’s ferocious harmonica tone. I’ve developed quite a hankering for that metallic, soulful timbre lately, can’t seem to get enough, so I’ve listened to a lot more or less “old-timey” blues, but there are two albums which really stand out in my top, and until not so long ago there was only one: Bjørn Berge and Jan Flaaten (1994). I know, it’s weird that I put so much stock in a Norwegian blues release, but it just hit the right heartstrings, what can I say? Well, it was quite a surprise to hear those very same heartstrings resonate all over again, but to a very different pairing of exceptional musicians.

This is, as I said, an angry record, a fierce, frustrated, teeth gritting collection of songs. The blues is essentially a real-life sort of music, tightly connected with the hurt accumulating in the singer’s life. Ben Harper seems to have slid from a more serene outlook, the perspective of a man unshakeable in his faith, to this gnarled mode of expression, a transformation which makes me take heed all the more. It’s not that I’m a morbid ghoul, delighting in other people’s perceived misery, it’s that the cracks in the shell of comfort and security seem to always generate the more heartfelt and genuine utterances in music. I see the process alike that of a fir tree secreting resin to heal the cuts in its bark. And, of course, there’s nothing quite like the blues for expressing inner ruin, or desperate struggle, for that matter.

“I don’t believe a word you say” has been the track of the month for me, so a special note goes to that searing song. I love how the disappointment seems to overpower the anger and the loss of faith in the song. It’s such an intense, such a broken mess of a song, with gears whirring savagely out of control, placed smack in the middle of the album, like a punch in the chest! Wonderful stuff guys, trust me. And even if the tempo of the songs changes pretty radically from one to the next, the mood is almost always the same, with few but well-drawn nuances, and an absolute apex reached in this track.

Such a refreshing thing to hear this deeply rooted music sprout such vigorous shoots! Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite make an truly staggering team, even when Ben Harper can’t help but move slightly away from true-grit blues (such as on the wonderful “You found another lover (I lost another friend”) – their dialogue is never forced, never redundant, never boring or dishonest. Wanna hear two people talk about their scars in exquisite music? Give this album a shot! Enjoy!

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