Ben Harper has been hiding in plain sight for nearly 20 years, delivering handsome hybrid folk blues – sometimes politicized, sometimes heartbroken – in his signature high-tenor whisper, while playing slide guitar with flashes of Hendrixian fire. His version of Americana has often resonated more loudly abroad. But as the Black Keys, Gary Clark Jr. and others move blues back into the mainstream, there’s new context for Harper’s artisanal roots music.
So Get Up!, Harper’s shit-hot new collaboration with 68-year-old bluesman Charlie Musselwhite, comes at a perfect time. It’s a project that’s been brewing since 1997, when the two recorded “Burnin’ Hell” with Musselwhite’s longtime friend John Lee Hooker, who was impressed with the pair’s chemistry and encouraged them to pursue it. Here, it’s clear from the get-go: the way Musselwhite’s harmonica dances with Harper’s vocals on the coiled opener, “Don’t Look Twice,” and the unplugged “You Found Another Lover (I Lost Another Friend),” and how the singer works his lower register to match Musselwhite’s gravelly harp on “I’m In I’m Out and I’m Gone,” an on-fire juke-joint stomper.
One of the thrills of Get Up! is hearing Harper rock on hard blues, refreshing from a powerful singer-guitarist whose work can be overly hushed. This kind of music is meat for Musselwhite: Raised in Mississippi and Memphis, he came north to Chicago for factory work like a generation of strivers, and came of age playing electric blues in bars with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, his voicelike phrases echoing Sonny Boy Williamson and his nasty amplified tone bowing to Little Walter. You hear those roots on “Blood Side Out,” all scalding harmonica and slashing guitar, and some of Harper’s most aggressive vocals. Ditto “I Don’t Believe a Word You Say,” a betrayed lover’s slap-back that doubles as a great voicemail message for bullshit-breathed congressional reps.
Harper is a fusionist, so there’s more going on than strict tradition. The title track rides a wicked bass line into a slow-motion space jam. Another zero-gravity blues, “I Ride at Dawn,” makes chilling use of Harper’s signature Weissenborn lap slide. The highlight, “We Can’t End This Way,” is a sort of gospel waltz driven by hand claps that preaches solidarity between haves and have-nots.
If Harper isn’t the most distinctive songwriter, he has always made up for it in the details: the gorgeous nuance of his guitar work and vocal phrasing, the bigness of his spirit. In recent years he’s proved an ace collaborator, from his summit with the Blind Boys of Alabama to his Fistful of Mercy project with Joseph Arthur and Dhani Harrison. In Musselwhite he’s found a kindred spirit: an understated virtuoso able to push past tradition without losing himself. They’ve made a set that feels timeless and right on schedule. “It’s been a long, hard day, and a long, hard night/ Been a hard year/It’s been a hard life,” Harper sings on the closer, “All That Matters Now” – a reminder that great blues records are, alas, always timely.