First Listen: Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite, Get Up!


image courtesy Ben Harper

Those lucky enough to catch Ben Harper’s recent solo shows were treated to an eclectic mix of songs that showcased more than his exceptional song-writing, vocal and slide guitar talents.  Audiences were given a peek behind the curtain into his life and process through covers of Eddie Vedder or Bob Marley songs, or or through stories of working with Jeff Buckley or Heath Ledger. A wide diversity of influences, a history rooted in the folk tradition and collaborations with many key artists of our time mean that audiences have come to expect a Ben Harper album to shift between rock, blues, roots, folk, funk and soul in a heartbeat, often within the same song.

Get up! is Harper’s twelfth Studio Album, and follows last years By My Side.  By My Side was referred to as a “retrospective” to accompany the solo tour, rather than a “Greatest Hits”, but when an artist has such a substantial body of work, any greatest hits style compilation can come to be seen as a full stop in a musician’s career, rather than an exclamation mark. Those afraid of a post-greatest-hits-lull will be dissapointed, as this collaboration with master harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite carves out new sonic territory for Harper and contains some great songs to boot.

Opening track “Don’t look twice” is a standout, and blends a confident and understated vocal with a catchy, rumbling bass and remarkably restrained harmonica from Charlie Musselwhite, it also sets the tone for an album firmly rooted in blues.  Tracks like the gorgeous “All that Matters Now” or aggressive “blood side out” stick close to the traditional blues formula, but modern arrangements and wonderful harmonica hooks stop them becoming stuck in an old-time blues rut.

At the less traditional end of the spectrum  “I ride at Dawn” is structured like a standard 12-bar blues, but the arrangement of echoing slide guitars lends it an ethereal and ghostly quality and a bleak, stark ending.  “We can’t end this way” is a Bluesy polka beat overlaid with gospel backing vocals, country guitar and slightly unhinged harmonica.  The vibe is curiously optimistic and energetic and you can’t help smiling at the sheer exuberance of the track that somehow becomes more than the sum of it’s parts…

Title track “Get Up” is a great title track, not only because it’s a great song but because it best exempifies the feel of the entire album.  Here a bubbling baseline and restrained percussion fuels lends this track a 70’s psychedelic drive to the low-end,  before a guitar break that first tickles at the subconscious, and then reinvents itself in the second break to haunt and pry at the edges of melody whilst the harmonica eggs it on.  From here a game of musical cat and mouse ensues that seems to spontaneously avoid ever becoming a riff or tune – This is enjoyable modern blues from two masters of their craft, with the band (comprising Jason Mozersky on guitar, Jesse Ingalls on bass and Jordan Richardson on drums) providing a solid backbone for Harper and Musselwhite’s musical dialog.

For this reviewer the highpoints of this album are in it’s less traditional arrangements, whereas the driving roadhouse-style blues of “I’m in, I’m Out, And I’m Gone” or the angry “I don’t believe a word you say” don’t really offer much that is new.

If you are looking for the memorable folk alternative riffs of ‘burn one down’ or the magestic  outpouring of ‘Morning Yearning’ you’ll find that here in more measured amounts, Get Up! is an album that stays firmly in blues territory, and has a sound all of it’s own.   Harper’s vocals are set back in the mix a little and Musselwhite’s harmonica is restrained, confident and strong throughout – here’s an artist who knows how to play as part of an ensemble.  Perhaps because of Musselwhite’s contribution, Get Up!  is truly an album where vocals, slide guitar and harmonica are given shared responsibility in pulling the tracks together and songwriting is given a back-seat to a joyful explosion of musicianship.

Whilst this album seldom strays from the blues, Harper’s eclectic musical loves and broad array of inspirations means there is little here that feels formulaic or stale.  A worthy step in Ben Harper’s continuing journey, Get Up reinforces that Harper is a musician at the top of his game, with many suprises left in store.

Get Up! is available now. Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite will be appearing at this year’s Bluesfest.

1 Comment

  1. February 8, 2013 at 13:52

    […] “Those afraid of a post-greatest-hits-lull will be disappointed, as this collaboration with master harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite carves out new sonic territory for Harper and contains some great songs to boot” – Mackajay reviews Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite’s new album Get Up!. Review here […]

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