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The blues is a unique American invention that, while taking on various forms it is identifiable by its original mold. The collaborative project of Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite on "Get Up!" released Jan. 29 (Stax Records) is a modern take on the expressive Chicago blues.
The blues has been passed on through the generations and over time has evolved to fit the needs of the artist. The blues musicians of today like Derek Trucks, Jack White, the Black Keys and others have each used the blues structure to articulate their commentary on the world.
Ben Harper is a singer-songwriter best known for his mastery of acoustic folk, rock and reggae. Harper is gifted guitarist and musician. Since his career began in the mid-90s and really took off with his solo release "Diamonds on the Inside" in 2003, Harper evolved as a musician and collaborated with various backing bands including the Innocent Criminals and Relentless7.
Charlie Musselwhite is a legendary blues harmonica player who has released more than 20 albums including "Harmonica According to Charlie Musselwhite," released in 1978 and has played with Bonnie Raitt, Bo Diddley, B.B. King, Eric Clapton and Dr. John.
Harper's soulful approach to singing is a great compliment to Musselwhite's harmonica playing, which at times takes on a vocal quality. Harper said he met Musselwhite early in his career at a blues festival and later they performed together with John Lee Hooker who endorsed the idea for the duo recording together. As a young boy, Harper said Musselwhite's records, including "Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite's Southside Band," were always around his house.
Musselwhite's harmonica is constant presence on this album building slowly before stepping right out in front by the end of the first track "Don't Look Twice," featuring Harper playing a simple blues riff on the acoustic guitar.
As musicians, Harper and Musselwhite are a great duo playing off each other nicely in a call and response style.
The bass line that drives the second track, "I'm In I'm Out and I'm Gone," is rhythmically hypnotic and lays a seamless canvas for Harper and Musselwhite to accentuate their styles.
The backing band on this album is essentially the Relentless7 featuring; guitarist Jason Mozersky, bassist Jesse Ingalls and Jordan Richardson on drums. The band gels together nicely and it's not more evident on the traditional 12-bar blues number "She Got Kick."
Harper's gospel revival on "We Can't End This Way," is punctuated by hand claps and tells a personal message which fames Harper's world view. He told NPR that he wrote the song while skateboarding and saw a man hustling people by just yelling "help" on a street corner. He said people in $5,000 suits were just ignoring him. Harper describes in the first verse.
"There's a man on the corner beggin' for help/ and there's a man who walks past him and he's drownin' in wealth/ who doesn't understand, who doesn't understand/ how disappointment destroys the soul." From there, Harper's voice is clear and refreshing on top of Musslewhite's harmonica and a harmony of backup singers.
The pair get down and dirty on "I Don't Believe A Word You Say," a track that would have been right at home on the Buddy Guy and Junior Wells album "Play the Blues." The repeated refrain, from which the title takes its name, provides a foundation for Harper and Musselwhite to build upon. Like a good blues tune should, there's some fun wordplay in the verses, "I used to look at you in wonder/ now I just look at you and wonder." Harper plays a wicked slide guitar on this track especially.
For fans of Harper's singer-songwriter style, there was a familiar to "You Found Another Lover (I Lost Another Friend)." Musselwhite provides the perfect accompaniment by reaching into the higher end of the register to accent the harmonies at play on the track. He does it all on this album; from wailing to the meandering "All That Matters Now," Musselwhite uses that harmonica like his voice to respond to Harper's lyrics.
Harper also plays the slide guitar on "I Ride At Dawn" and a few others on the album.
The title track features an extremely heavy walking bass line that sets up the testimonial of modern rebellion sung between guitar, slide guitar and harmonica solos.
Harper sings, "I have a right to get up/ when I please/ I have a right to go/ where I please/ don't tell me I've broken the law/ the law has broken me."
Ultimately that is what is at stake here. At a time when much of the American political culture is wrought with division and visceral rhetoric, the blues tells the tale of the everyman. It's done through lyrics and also by harnessing the energy of what's around the artist and concentrating that into the fingers or breath of the performer. Ben Harper and Musselwhite are individually brilliant and together have captured the essence modern, relevant blues.
The album includes 10 original songs on the standard version and 15 on the iTunes deluxe version that also includes five bonus tracks and a 25-minute documentary. It was also releases as a vinyl LP. Find it on Amazon, iTunes and Spotify.
Stax Records released a few videos of Harper and Musselwhite talking about their blues influences and working together that can be seen on YouTube.
What is your favorite Ben Harper album? Comment on Twitter @DBCurrent #TheHighNote.
Read the High Note with Shaun Smith every Saturday on www.shorenewstoday.com.