“Of course it’s different now, the blues is no longer blues, it’s green now,” the late Ruth Brown said. Those words so befit the blues renaissance now reverberating around us. The rock world is now swamped with new-age tributaries to the blues, from 2013’s breakout band Alabama Shakes to the Ohio duo the Black Keys, from the Hendrix-inspired Gary Clark, Jr. to the overgrown population of rock stars that faithfully pay homage to its century’s old tradition. Like rock, soul too owes its allegiance to the blues. And although Brown, a rhythm-and-blues singer, would’ve questioned the legitimacy of much of today’s radio R&B, she knows from whence her music came. Ben Harper, a 20-year veteran who championed the blues before it became today’s popular craze, is in the right place at the right time.
Thanks to Get Up!, his first record with blues harmonica pro Charlie Musselwhite and his first record with the legendary Stax label (under Concord Music Group), Harper is seizing the moment. No, this is not a rehash of old Buddy Guy tunes or dusty Stax catalog hits. Instead, Harper reexamines the conversations of blues pantheons like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, while also exploring the serendipity of having the seasoned Musselwhite aboard to better convey the rumbling heartache and angst inside his melancholic hymns.
“Don’t Look Twice” opens the adventure with a Blind Willie Johnson setup and serves up a dose of straight-forward realism. “It ain’t love/unless it brings you to your knees/It ain’t salvation/if you’re still begging to be free,” he sings using the nuanced drawl of a tired old man as if he knows these truths from experience. As the train travels along, Get Up! Seizes an assortment of Chicago blues (“I’m In, I’m Out and I’m Gone”), acoustic soul (“You Found Another Lover (I Lost Another Friend)”), Zeppelin rock (“Blood Side Out”) and Bob Dylan folk (“I Ride at Dawn”).
The attitude of the album hardly ventures from what comes naturally to a traditional blues record, lending to the album’s predictability. But, when Harper and the 69-year old Musselwhite decide to break free from the album’s norm, they offer excellent demonstrations of blues fusion. “We Can’t End This Way” exercises a spirited Staples Singers-esque drive, while “She Got Kick” shows off a slowed-down “Hound Dog” melody. On the album’s six-minute title track, you can even hear how Jesse Ingalls’s jazzy bass line sounds like it could’ve been lifted from a bad-ass ?uestlove/Roots jam session. Possibly the album’s mightiest entrée is “I Don’t Believe a Word You Say,” which conjures the gravitas of Lenny Kravitz channeling Hendrix. The chorus is simple and highly repetitive, the verses get straight to the point way too soon: “Used to look at you with wonder/Now I look at you and wonder,” but the fiery five-star performance is rowdy blues at its best.
Besides working with the Innocent Criminals, Harper is no stranger to pulling off these kinds of one-night only stints, which includes his collaborations with the Blind Boys of Alabama, Relentless7 and his side group, Fistful of Mercy. Lately, the newly-invigorated Stax has also been a bit trigger-happy about pulling off these unofficial once-in-a lifetime events; many of which showcase an artist on a full-length project to then only drift away from the roster. Musselwhite is an integral part to Harper’s soulful slide guitar movement on Get Up! We know it. Given the high quality of their collaboration, for this to be a one-time-only event for this “father-and-son” would be a detriment to the history books. Highly recommended.
By J. Matthew Cobb