Dark Blues: Ben Harper’s Get Up!

 

Immagine5

By Ben Taylor

I started listening to Ben Harper right around the time that I first learned to play guitar. As all self-taught teenage musicians, I was dreadful. So to hear the opening riffs of Napster-acquired songs like 1997’s “Faded” come through the speakers of my dad’s Gateway 2000 was utterly terrifying. I was fairly sure it was, in fact, a guitar being used to evoke those sounds; but how a human could ever aspire to play such things was beyond me and my 56kbps dial-up existence. Ever since, I’ve maintained a reverent posture toward that man, and so I was excited when asked to review his new album Get Up! for TTAF.

I eventually did legally purchase a number of Mr. Harper’s albums, performed a song of his for a wedding (after about seven years of actual practice), and even got to see the Innocent Criminals live in college. But I should confess that my knowledge of his work isn’t by any means exhaustive, and I haven’t spent much time with his most recent studio releases, so I decided to visit an authoritative informational resource…

According to Wikipedia, Get Up! features blues harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite. Never heard of him. All you really need to know from his wiki entry is this: Musselwhite was reportedly the inspiration for Dan Aykroyd’s character in the Blues Brothers. Yep. It’s true.

After that extensive bit of research – and with the perfect image in my mind of Elwood J. Blues “burning one down” with Harper and Co. in the studio – I was ready to listen. (Truthfully, Charlie Musselwhite is a living blues legend. Grammy winner, Blues Hall of Famer, collaborator w/ the likes of Tom Waits, Eddie Vedder, the Blind Boys of Alabama, John Lee Hooker, etc. He’s amazing. I’m a disrespectful jackass.)

From track one, Musselwhite establishes himself as the ever-present instrumental punctuation mark for whatever jaded proverb is on Harper’s mind. And he’s got a few chapters full of them. In fact, the first half of the album relies heavily on Harper’s lyrical riffs, straying only occasionally into a guitar or harmonica solo. We get some gems:

“And my life needs no witness / And my burden is my own / I’m in, I’m out, and I’m gone”

 

“You know it’s bad when the ceiling says to the floor / 

I’ll trade ya places, I can’t take it up here no more”

Other times, though, Harper sounds over-zealous in his tackling of spiritual, relational, or class struggle. On “We Can’t End This Way”, Harper elucidates the ugliness of poverty with the tired image of a street-corner beggar overlooked by a man “drowning in wealth.” Or in the single “I Don’t Believe A Word You Say”, his skepticism of the song’s subject comes across as forced: “I can’t even look you in the eye.” While the band pound out the tune exceedingly well, something about that cyclic refrain feels less than authentic.

Then again, maybe he’s simply emoting; it is the blues, after all. A raw emotion can often come across as pretention for all its earnestness. And honesty is one of the things we really love, and need, from people like Ben Harper:

“I may lie to my heart/ But my heart never lies to me …

You found another lover/ And I lost another friend”

And then there’s the second half of the album, which kicks off with “Tomorrow I Ride at Dawn.” It’s ferocious and haunting and wonderful; easily my favorite song on the album, and the first moment where the Weissenborn is truly featured. This is the Ben Harper of my adolescent idolatry! It’s the perfect, chilling musical match to the song’s subject matter: war, violence, and regret. I’m tempted to write out all of the lyrics, but just go ahead and check them out for yourself

The record’s back half is where you start to realize what Harper and Musselwhite have been up to: each track a distinctive character study of various gritty, life-hardened individuals: soldiers, convicts, beggars, alcoholics, lovers, tramps, gamblers, preachers. Each has enough of his or her own bruises, ghosts, truisms, and depravities to be a genuine Steinbeck character. Our artists all along have played blues mouthpiece for some of the archetypes of the poor, modern south (though race is noticeably absent as a motif). As such, they do what the blues does – speak of hard times with a unified voice of lyric and note:

“There’s no cure for life / Let me down easy / At least tonight we’re together / And that’s all that matters for now”

Perhaps that excuses the album for some of its earlier poetic over-reaches. The fluctuating voices in these songs reflect a range of life experiences, again woven skillfully together with a thread of pulsing harmonica.

Lyrical redemption notwithstanding, however, we are never fortunate enough to really get a fully warmed-up Ben. He delivers his blues bars adequately, but the vocal displays that made us fall in love with him on Fight For Your Mind or Diamonds On the Inside are missing here. Again, so is that slide guitar for the most part. Watching him sit onstage in 2006, conjuring up a vicious frenzy of steel right out of his lap, was an all-time live music highlight for me. And while I really like good harmonica, of which there is plenty here, those moments of instrumental glory just don’t show up like they would have on The Will to Live or Live From Mars.

Still, Get Up! works, more than anything, as a concept album – an anthology of blue-collar short stories, a sort of 21st century Mississippi Dubliners. And though the collaboration with Musselwhite does a great deal to advance the concept, the album struggles overall to be a great Ben Harper record. It is a haunting, grinding collection of well-written songs that I’m sure will be improved all the more from stage. If you get a chance to go see this pair live, I would wager it well worth your money. Your CD/mp3 cash, however, might be better spent in the coming months of a 2013 that foreshadows a slew of satisfying releases.

Administrators’ Note: Ben Taylor is a music junkie and Student Activities Director at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania where his neighbors include Lord and Lady Grantham and the Dowager Countess. He once tried to sell his soul to the devil for the ability to play this here gee-tar. Unsatisfied, the devil also made Ben play and sing at one person’s wedding per year for all eternity. Ben shook on it and now lives with his wonderful wife Kerrie and his pretentious cat, Henri.

 

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10 Comments on “Dark Blues: Ben Harper’s Get Up!”

  1. February 6, 2013 at 8:11 am #

    Ben is THE man 😉 great artist!

    • February 6, 2013 at 12:22 pm #

      I should probably clarify that while to my friends and family I am THE Ben Taylor, to the rest of the world I am NOT the son-of-James-Taylor-and-Carly-Simon-recording-artist-and-male-model Ben Taylor. I do not have a record deal. Just a job at a small college. Sorry to disappoint. But thanks for reading anyway!

      • February 6, 2013 at 6:55 pm #

        I was refering to Ben Harper…

      • February 6, 2013 at 10:25 pm #

        Yeah I realized that after posting the comment. I love Ben Harper too. Sorry about that.

  2. curtisrrogers
    February 6, 2013 at 5:11 pm #

    First of all, thanks for reviewing the album. I have listened through it a few times now and I generally agree with you on the album. I expected a blues album, but one with a Ben Harper twist. I am not sure that he added much to the album, obviously other than the lyrics. I heard an interview with Ben on NPR and he discussed his respect for Musselwhite and his music and so I think perhaps his goal was to chronicle said respect and musical ability within Harper’s own career. I wouldn’t go so far to say that I was disappointed with the album, but it did leave me wanting more. Also, on the NPR interview there is a great explanation of the song “We Can’t End This Way” in which Harper describes that he thought of the song while skateboarding in downtown LA during an award ceremony (think Oscars, Grammy’s etc) and observing the intermingling of grifters and celebrities. Here is the link to the interview

    http://www.npr.org/2013/01/31/170587352/ben-harper-and-charlie-musselwhite-get-muddy

    Thanks again

  3. February 6, 2013 at 9:31 pm #

    Now I have to listen to this album, Ben! Great review!

  4. curtisrrogers
    February 7, 2013 at 7:35 pm #

    Also, I do not know this cat but the “i” in Henri does make it pretentious, even more so if it goes by the French pronunciation.

    • February 7, 2013 at 10:59 pm #

      Nope, the classic ‘non-French’ pronunciation. As in Henri Nouwen. More pretentious still?

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Ben Harper And Charlie Musselwhite | Finer Lifestyle Magazine - February 22, 2013

    […] Dark Blues: Ben Harper’s Get Up! […]

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