Ben Harper, folk musician, and Charlie Musselwhite, veteran blues harmonica player, have teamed up to give you Get Up!, a set of collaborative tracks with roots in blues, gospel, and good old-fashioned R&B. For those not familiar with his work, Ben Harper’s been mixing influences like this since the ‘90s, with previous forays into jam rock and reggae as well as folk. Charlie Musselwhite, on the other hand, has been around forever – his criminally overlooked debut Stand Back! was released in 1967, and he’s been wailing on his harmonica ever since.
When he first emerged onto the scene, Ben Harper’s main contemporary would probably have been Lenny Kravitz, who had a similar appreciation for Hendrix, the blues, and…uh, questionable lyrics. Harper’s a great vocalist, but there are several lines that walk the tightrope between symbolic and vacuous, like “Be careful talking to yourself, ‘cause you may be listening”, and “We’ve been living like it’s raining / When it’s just been pouring down sun”. And when the lyrics aren’t raising your eyebrows like that, there’s nothing really impactful about them at all.
That leaves us with the music. Thankfully, it’s pretty damn good. Musselwhite really is an invaluable asset to this album; while Ben Harper’s songwriting is competent enough, it’s the jagged-edged harmonica that makes the songs stand out. His solos are exquisite, especially on “I’m In, I’m Out and I’m Gone”, and on every song, his playing is limber, expressive, and always tasteful. Harper’s backing musicians also do a fantastic job here; on “I Don’t Believe a Word You Say”, the band rips straight into the chorus of the song, blasting out an almighty riff that, as Nicki Minaj would say, is basically “shitting on your whole life”.
The album has a satisfying range of dynamics too: you’ve got the sinister drones of “I Ride at Dawn”, the gospel waltz of “We Can’t End This Way”, and the quiet, impassioned acoustic ballad “You Found Another Lover (I Lost Another Friend)”. Harper’s jamming tendencies also make a welcome appearance on the title track, the longest on the album, with by far the best guitar solos. On the other end of the spectrum, the shortest cut “Blood Side Out” is a rough, snarling rocker that doesn’t outstay its welcome in the slightest. And after all that, “All That Matters Now” ends the album perfectly with a very slow, plaintive bit of piano blues.
There’s a very vintage, very American feel to this record – and hell, you can even tell that from the Stax logo on the album’s cover. Of course, teaming up with a vintage American musician suggests that this was Harper’s intention, but the fantastic backing musicians help a great deal in establishing this vibe. At times, it feels like a throwback not just to the days of the Delta blues, but to the days of jam rock and the ‘90s in general. Collaborating with Musselwhite, and incorporating so much of the blues into this album, makes what might have been a set of dated folk songs rather enjoyable.