I must confess that I am guilty of this crime, and perhaps music consumers across America will join me in this, but I had thought that the blues was no longer a “living” genre or part of the modern music scene. Sure, the blues’ impact on popular music as a whole cannot be understated, or perhaps fully understood, but in terms of it being alive and new, I did not see the possibility. With Get Up! by Ben Harper and legendary harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite, the blues is returned to the mainstream of American musical culture.
Harper must have wanted to explore the genre as much as possible, for it is not just a “blues” album but a veritable tour-de-force of the blues, with well represented samplings of certain subgenres and derivations of the genre as a whole. The disc’s first four tracks help prove my point, as they each represent very different patches on the quilt that is the blues. Opening track “Don’t Look Twice” serves as a way to ease into the LP with a more laid back and acoustic Mississippi-delta style. From the opener, we, much like the actual migration of the music in the 1920s and 30s, go up river as we hit the steady rocking, Chicago-blues number “I’m In I’m Out And I’m Gone.” “We Can’t End This Way,” is a deceitful track with its love song sounding title, as it is a stripped-down yet poignant gospel blues song, choir responding in the background and all. “I Don’t Believe A Word You Say,” screams out next, a ferocious blues rock track that sounds right off of a Zeppelin album – think “When The Levee Breaks.” While not the only hard, distorted track on the disc, “I Don’t Believe” still stands as one of the strongest tracks as all the instruments blend very well together- especially the vocals, slide guitar and harmonica on the choruses, and the bass and drums shine with brief fills. Harper and Musselwhite even stop down in New Orleans for a spell with the Cajun two-step rocker, “She Got Kick,” which should be lauded for the appropriateness of the title alone.
Of all the talent on the album though, Musselwhite’s harmonica shines above all else as not only the most virtuosic, but also the most integral instrument on the album. Musselwhite can bring his harp to a hard hitting powerhouse or to an almost human-like second voice on some of the tracks, especially as it seems to duet with Harper’s vocals on “You’ve Lost Another Love (I’ve Found Another Friend).” Musselwhite shows what mastery of an instrument means on the album, as he is truly a master of the harmonica. Though Musselwhite is, in many ways, the star of the album, Harper’s own significant talent cannot go unmentioned. Jimi Hendrix once said of the blues, “The blues is easy to play, but hard to feel,” and Harper is able to feel the blues. Though Harper does not stand in complete parallel to a Robert Johnson-type bluesman, he is able to channel the persona and mentality very well; he is deep, reflective, inspiring, and critical – sometimes all at once – of life and society, just like the bluesmen of old. In “You’ve Lost Another Lover” Harper, channeling Otis Redding, sings the melancholy of a failed relationship with “We’ve been living like it’s raining / When it’s just been pouring down sun.” Harper moves from downtrodden and lonesome on the above song to being enflamed and critical on the title track as he fires the line “Don’t tell me I can’t break the law / cause the law has broken me” from his lyrical cannon.
So besides making me feel ashamed of underestimating the blues, Get Up! is truly a fantastic LP, and will be one of my standouts for the year. With a powerful band behind them- making a full and vintage sonic landscape- Harper with his voice and guitar and Musselwhite with his harp, recreate the world of the blues for 2013. Perhaps that is the point Harper and Musselwhite wanted to get across; the blues can connect regardless of the time. Whether its 1913 or 2013, the blues speaks to people in a certain way, and in that regard, we will always have the blues.
Originally Published on The Rotation, WGTB Georgetown Radio's Music Blog, on 02/06/13