Bluesy ‘Get Up!’ brings Harper and Musselwhite together
Published: Wednesday, January 30, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, January 30, 2013 23:01
Blues is one of those genres where no matter how well you interpret it or how many years you practice, there’s some old geezer out there still playing small-time gigs out in the Midwest who’s a million times better than you. He also probably only has about one eighth of a working lung to his name, not to mention that his first instrument was one guitar string and three rusty nails. Dammit if he can’t still jam, though.
So when the young and eclectic multi-instrumentalist Ben Harper decided to make his 12th studio album a blues record, his first stroke of genius was inviting the legendary Charlie Musselwhite, the original “white-guy” blues player. (He swears he’s part Native American, but he’s still deciding on which tribe.) Though often overlooked, Memphis Charlie’s claim to fame back in the ’60s was as a harmonica player good enough to play alongside Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Tom “Grizzly-Balls” Sawtooth. I made up that last one, but seriously, Musselwhite’s a big deal. Most people nowadays are familiar with his persona without realizing it, since he was reportedly the inspiration for Dan Akroyd’s Blues Brothers.
The second brilliant stroke for Get Up! was the devastating riff in “I Don’t Believe a Word You Say,” which ultimately won me over as a fan of the LP on the whole. The combination of Harper’s staggering, soul-heavy vocals atop the raucous and technically masterminded harmonica blast is enough to have any blues aficionado stomping angrily around their house. For the uninitiated, that’s how blues aficionados express uncontainable glee when they aren’t drinking heavily. From the first merciless note of the track, which opens brazenly on the refrain, it feels like everyone in the studio is trying to rip apart a brick wall with just the sound of their loneliness, their resentment, and their massive stones. As far as an original release off a modern blues album goes, this very well may be the most genuinely true-to-form howler I’ve ever seen. The immense talent in this collaboration manages to churn-out the whole works, from skuzzy instrumental duels between musical generations to clever, striking lyricism that’s often blacker than B.B King’s pinky toes. That’s saying a lot, because the pinky toes are, like, the sixth blackest body part on B.B. King.
Really, though, the wordplay here is almost too brainy for the blues, which thrives on dark simplicity. The second verse of the opening track lays this gem on you, so right off the bat you see what you’re in for: “If your ship hasn’t come in / Don’t have a problem with the shore / If you’re locked out of your house / Don’t have a problem with your door.” Little words of bluesy wisdom like that are constantly cropping up, and they’re usually bracketed by the group rising to flat-out harmony with a cymbal clash and a harmonica wail.
Despite his more extensively published background in gospel and reggae, Harper does the Blues proud by crushing the vocals on killer originals like “Blood Side Out” and “I Ride at Dawn,” which both manage to be precisely as badass as their titles would suggest. His lyricism and timbre are exceptionally in tune with the archetypes ranging from wistful Worryin’ Man laments like “Don’t Look Twice” to gruff-and-tumble monologues like “I’m In, I’m Out, and I’m Gone.” He can preach and he can croon, and whichever one he’s doing you won’t want him to stop. Returning to his roots in slide guitar becomes Harper well, as he delivers the licks that make him fit to shred beside Musselwhite’s tremendous presence.
The power coursing through the studio is infectious, as the whole group clamors to back the Musselwhite-Harper partnership with thick, full-bodied groove. The whole album is a pleasure, a good-time had by the performers, songwriters, and listeners alike. Get Up! is a stellar recommendation for seasoned listeners and dabblers in the genre alike.