[30 January 2013]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
Does Ben Harper ever get tired? He’s like a hippie Elvis Costello, with all the projects and collaborations he takes on. The songwriter first leapt to prominence by himself with 1994’s Welcome to the Cruel World before bringing along the Innocent Criminals for the subsequent releases that would paint the earliest parts of his career. After that, he called up the Blind Boys of Alabama to work on 2004’s There Will Be Light. From there, he moved to Relentless7 in 2009 for the criminally overlooked White Lies For Dark Times, and then in May 2011, he returned to the single life again with Give Till It’s Gone after dabbling in Fistful of Mercy, his one-off project with Dhani Harrison and Joseph Arthur a couple years beforehand.
Now, with nearly 20 years of traveling down his own versatile and communal road behind him, Harper finds himself sharing the stage with one of the most gifted harmonica players in modern day blues, Charlie Musselwhite. The result, Get Up!, is a rowdy 10-track set that is as moody as it is delicate, as invigorating as it is subtle. And while Harper has made an art out of getting the best from his collaborators in the past, it’s here that fans can finally feel as though the guitarist and his guest are taking the notion of teamwork to heart, trading off solos like midnight confessionals at summer camp.
Actually, that’s what makes Get Up! so interesting. Harper has never been darker, and Musselwhite’s harmonica eagerly plays counselor to the vulnerable nature of the singer’s slide guitar. It’s like listening to a man bare his soul to someone who never even asked for details. With each track, Harper seems more and more like he was bursting at the seams to find someone who could give him the proper platform to confront these ugly emotions. With each track, Musslewhite’s harp proves to be the perfect sofa on which the “Steal My Kisses” singer could confide.
Take “I’m In I’m Out And I’m Gone”. Maybe the most raw track of the bunch, it’s four-and-a-half minutes of the dirtiest blues made in the aughts. The vocal performance alone feels more like a sermon than it does a prayer. Harper’s always been good for a moment or two of wisdom per record and Get Up!‘s comes here in the form of the tune’s final verse. “Preacher said, ‘Careful talkin’ to yourself—you may be listenin’” he sings over a harmonica-heavy groove that sounds like it was recorded in a woodshed. It’s a highlight of a phrase in a song filled with them.
The collaboration is at its best, however, when the two kick up the tempo. Both “I Don’t Believe A Word You Say” and “Blood Side Out” are aggressive statements that fail to feature the typical hint of peace almost always found elsewhere in the history Ben Harper’s career, and that’s not a bad thing. “Believe” even evokes a hint of Led Zeppelin with the electricity of both guitar and harmonica. Its staggered approach does wonders for the visceral nature of the song’s presentation. “Blood”, meanwhile, begins with the crack of a snare drum revving up the forceful and fearless engine that the track proves to be. It’s no secret that both artists have always been good at crafting an effective boogie, but these two minutes and 51 seconds are a shot of pure adrenaline in veins filled with smoke.
That said, there isn’t a more complete tune than the gospel-tinged “We Can’t End This Way”. Here, Musselwhite outshines his counterpart with a fluttering harmonica that never steps away from the spotlight, no matter how soulful the vocals become (which, for the record, is very). Backed by handclaps and a chorus of harmonies, the track has to be an early candidate for Song of the Year if only for the amount of inspiration this modern day expansion of roots music offers. 1963 or 2013, it would be find a more fulfilling listening experience.
Hell, even the ballads are good. Album closer “All That Matters Now” grants Harper an opportunity for true transcendence with his wavering voice. “It’s been a long hard day/And a long, hard night,” he sings on top of a slow blues that becomes more and more poignant with each breath that leaves Musselwhite’s mouth. And while it’s the type of utterance that the singer has attacked before with his acoustic guitar and sparse croons, he’s never sounded this desperate or this honest. It becomes the perfect illustration for precisely how connected these two guys can become whenever they sit down to make some music together.
In fact, that exact kind of organic correspondence is what makes Get Up! so damn memorable. Word has it that John Lee Hooker put the bug in these two artists’ ears to make the collaboration into an entire record after hearing them perform with one another years ago, and it’s clear Hooker was onto something. Musselwhite has always been a bit of an overlooked treasure, anyway, and Harper’s career to date has shown signs of both brilliance and burnout.
But together, Charlie and Ben have become a force from which it should be impossible to turn away. There’s a palpable sense of comfort between these two, and each listen becomes nothing more than yet another illustration of exactly how strong their musical connection is. It’s a marriage made in blues heaven that seems as though it could never end in a messy divorce. And if Get Up! is any indication of things to come, these two shouldn’t waste much time before embarking on a honeymoon for the ages.