Big names don’t delve in “small” productions that often, which is reason alone why this collaboration between Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite is a happy occasion. But not nearly the only one. Get Up! was a collaboration in the making since the two legends of roots music a generation apart first met in the mid-90s and worked together on John Lee Hooker’s The Best of Friends (1998) as well as some other collaborations, including Musselwhite’s 2004 choice release Sanctuary. Harper may have had to wait a while to make a record with one of his childhood idols, but he’s catching the sixty-eight year old blues harp giant still at the peak of his powers with a recent string of widely acclaimed albums and induction into the Blues Hall of Fame.
Musselwhite can compose and sing, too, but does neither with Harper taking care of those tasks, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is Charlie doing what he’s been the best at doing since the late 60s. His vintage harmonica can fill up space without being very loud and send tingles down your spine without going over the top. Musselwhite occupies the space normally occupied by the rhythm guitar, the lead guitar or the vocalist, depending on where he is within the song. He’s always in the right place at the right time, never having to force his way up front.
Harper brings his Relentless7 band in tow for these sessions, comprising of guitarist Jason Mozersky, bassist Jesse Ingalls, and drummer Jordan Richardson. The rapport with his backing band is never in doubt, and this is a pretty rugged unit. Combined with Musselwhite and bringing in Grammy winning Chris Goldsmith to help out with production, every track is oozing with grit and it has the unmistakable feel of a “live in the studio, no edits” sort of recordings. Even accounting for such seasoned blues and roots pros like Harper and Musselwhite, there’s so little between the musicians hashing out these tunes in the studio, and the listener of this record. It’s that kind of relaxed mindset that made it possible for “All That Matters Now” to come about as the result of rolling tape on the spot to capture Musselwhite and Mozersky noodling around on a groove.
They get dirty in so many other different ways. “I’m In I’m Out And I’m Gone” is a boogie that draws from both Hooker and Muddy, highlighted by what Harper states is what he believes “contains one of the greatest harmonica solos in history.” Harper himself does his part: a pleading vocal on “Don’t Look Twice,” the barely-contained frustration and anger rendered on “Blood Side Out” and the deep Creole soul on the Crescent City vibe of “She Got Kick.”
Alongside the humid blues rockers like “Blood” and “I Don’t Believe A Word You Say” are the sparser, acoustic-driven numbers that move closer to the country folk blues of Musselwhite’s beginnings but are also compatible with Harper’s style, such as the no-fuss ballad “You Found Another Lover (I Lost Another Friend)” and the handclapping gospel flavored number “We Can’t End This Way.”
All the songs are pretty succinct with one golden exception. “Get Up!” stakes itself on Ingalls’ nervous bass line that’s lightly layered on, and when Harper’s done with his verses, he lets Musselwhite and the band stretch out and jam out for a spell.
Yes, Get Up! was a record that was intended to be made for at least a decade, but feels as if they decided to do this about five minutes before they ducked into the nearest studio, positioned themselves around mikes and hit the record button. And that’s the best possible way to capture Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite.
Get Up! will go on sale January 29 courtesy of the storied Stax Records label.
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