Friday, 22 March 2013

Feature - Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite

Published in the March issue of Rhythms. Full feature below.

Get Down!

Towards the end of last year, I found myself in Sydney, covering the Blues Festival for Rhythms, and conducting some live Q&As – relaxed, intimate chats with artists on the bill, out in the sunshine in front of an appreciative audience, a fine way to spend a few hours amidst the noise and bustle of an event like that one.

One of my favourite interviews occurred on the last day – none other than Mr. Charlie Musselwhite, a bona fide blues legend, and one of the last original cats still left on the scene. Sure, not as high profile as some of his contemporaries, but a behemoth to those of us in the know.

He came wandering out into the grassy yard where we were conducting the interviews, strolling through the crowd with his wife, who introduced herself to me, before beckoning Charlie over. “Charlie’s the name, harmonica’s the game,” he said to me with a smile, his eyes twinkling, laconic and animated all at once. A better introduction one could not give oneself – it certainly grabbed me just right.

We sat in the small pagoda, which was serving as a stage, and chatted for around twenty minutes. We spoke about Musselwhite’s relationship with the great John Lee Hooker. We talked about him touring Australia. We chatted about what keeps him motivated, 46 years into his career. And we also spoke of one, Ben Harper. Perhaps an odd topic of conversation, but again, to those of us in the know, a poignant one indeed.

Ben Harper has been coming to Australia, and Bluesfest, since 1996. Indeed, it was his performance at Bluesfest back in ’96 that introduced this now superstar to the world. It was Harper’s music that triggered the ‘roots’ wave that engulfed all, back around ten years ago, spawning the likes of Xavier Rudd, Jack Johnson, John Butler, Donovan Frankenreiter, G Love and countless others. Through all that though, Harper has proven he’s no one trick pony, and has reinvented, reinvigorated and renewed not only his own music, but another generation’s appreciation for music made well before their time. Namely, the blues.

Over the past few months, I’ve spoken to Harper a couple of times – over the phone, certainly not in the convivial surrounds of a grassy yard in Windsor, just outside of Sydney. We covered a lot during these two conversations though – his love of the blues; the release of a ballady Best Of, By My Side; his first ever solo tour (last November); and Charlie Musselwhite. Again, that connection. Strange? Not in the slightest.

“He’s one of the last men standing in the American blues tradition,” enthuses Harper on Musselwhite, a man he obviously ardently admires. And with good reason, for it’s Musselwhite with whom Harper has just recorded yet another album, the bluesy, soul-infused Get Up!, which sees an old master teaching a young innovator a few tricks, no doubt about that.

Before we get ahead of ourselves however, we need to go back in time somewhat, to where this connection developed, to find out how these two came to be friends, and how they came to put this record, which bridges two generations of the blues, together.

“Charlie and I connected in 1995, when I was opening for John Lee Hooker,” Harper remembers fondly. “Oh man, I remember John Lee coming into my dressing room, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh man! My career can’t possibly get any higher than this!’

“Then we connected again at [Bluesfest], not long afterwards, that was the second time we connected. Then in about 1998, John Lee contacted Charlie and I to record with him on the same song (‘Burnin’ Hell’, from the Best Of Friends record, 1998), so we recorded that, and it was between the first time Charlie and I met and then, that Charlie and I formed a deep friendship. So we’ve been talking about making this record ever since we first met, so it’s been damn near 20 years in the making.”

“Both of us were finally off the road at the same time,” Harper says, explaining why Get Up!, recorded last year, has taken so long to come together. “Oh my goodness!  He called me and said, ‘What are you doing?’, and I said, ‘Waiting for you to tell me it’s time’. He said, ‘I think it might be time, I’m comin’ down to LA’, so I said, ‘All right’. So I got us a spot to record… and we just dug in, and I’ve gotta tell you, I’ve never been a part of making a record where it felt like the music was just out there waiting for you to just jump inside it and drive it.”

That’s almost two decades of pent-up blues energy just exploding there – these sessions must have just burst forth. “Well, let me give you an example in a lyric,” smiles Harper. “You know it’s bad when the ceiling says to the floor / I’ll trade you places, I can’t take it up here no more / I’m a living nervous habit, I tremble and I twitch / You keep on pullin’ at me like I’m some kinda hangin’ stitch / Don’t look twice, don’t look twice / Be glad your worries ain’t like mine, don’t look twice.”

Enough said.

“It’s blues, but it’s not like traditional Chicago blues,” smiled Musselwhite during our Sydney interview, on the music contained within Get Up!. “It’s kinda like a new way of being traditional, it’s new blues, it’s current blues. We had a really good time working together, it was a lot of fun.”

The majority of that interview is distorted – modern technology letting us down – but it comes back in just as I ask Musselwhite, as I’d asked Harper the week before, if he’d learnt anything from his musical partner of the time. “No,” deadpanned Musselwhite, much to the delight of the crowd. “Not musically anyway, it’s not like he said, ‘Charlie, you should really play it like this’. But I just listened to the lyrics, I listened to the form of the tune, figured out how I could add to it, and away we went.”

“Oh man, he basically deconstructed and reconstructed my sense of melody and timing,” Harper had replied to the same question the week before. “I’ve been in sessions since the Charlie record, and I play different. I can feel myself playing and phrasing differently from having played with [him]. He’s the John Coltrane of his instrument, he’s the greatest living harmonica player, and one of the greatest who [ever lived], it’s like a horn section. You’ve just gotta take notes.”

With Get Up!, the blues has crossed a generation, something it needs to do in order to survive, something it needs to do for the good of music everywhere. With Charlie Musselwhite still going strong, and Ben Harper not likely to relinquish his rabid hold over any music he can sink his teeth into, the blues my friends, is in good hands indeed.

Samuel J. Fell

Get Up! is available now through ABC Music / Universal.  Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite play the West Coast Blues & Roots Festival March 24, and Bluesfest March 28. Ben Harper plays Bluesfest (solo) March 29.

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