I don’t know what comes over me, but sometime around the middle of January, I develop an insatiable hunger for the blues.
Every year I go on a blues jag. I turn off Little Steven’s Underground Garage and tune into B. B. King’s Bluesville. This has nothing to do with lousy weather, relationship drama, the job or the timing of my period. In fact, when I go on these jags, I’m not the least bit depressed. It’s more of a craving for honest expression of human emotion, something that you rarely encounter in daily life.
While noted scholars have delved deeply into the origins and influence of the blues (Ted Gioia and Elijah Wald are my two go-to guys), there remains in the popular consciousness a fundamental misconception about the blues. To the average person, it seems like nothing more than bitching to a fairly simple musical pattern. To me, blues is a musical form that allows a human being to express deeply held emotions not often expressed in polite company. Whether it’s Little Johnny Taylor wishing for a part-time lover or Robert Johnson telling us, “I’m going to beat my woman until I get satisfied,” the blues is a safe place to vocalize aspects of the human condition that don’t jive with convention. It’s a world where there are no limits on self-expression, no secrets and no reason to hold back. The blues is a vehicle for expressing those stray thoughts and feelings that pop in and out of consciousness, impulses that we usually repress. The blues provides a liberating, cleansing and healing experience that clears out all the pretense we cling to as we navigate through our world. To put it simply, blues isn’t a place for bullshit.
Because not all powerful emotions can be expressed through words, blues also provides the musician with a wide range of possibilities to express those emotions on the instrument of choice, most often a guitar or the harmonica—instruments capable of bending notes into blue notes to express feelings that don’t fit on the conventional lines of a staff. It’s also important to note that the voice itself is an instrument in the blues, as the communication from a blues singer goes deeper than the spoken poetry.
And sometimes the poetry itself is pretty damned powerful.
In the middle of this current jag, I stumbled onto an old vinyl record (Stand Back!) by Charlie Musselwhite, one of my favorite Chicago blues guys from the 60’s. “Whatever happened to old Charlie?” I wondered. With modern technology, I didn’t have to wonder long. Charlie has a website! The things old guys do these days!
On that website, I found out that Charlie had just collaborated with Ben Harper on a new album. Ben Harper is a musician I’ve always admired. He is an eclectic explorer of musical form, unafraid to stretch his skills by crossing genres. This liaison intrigued me, so I bought a copy of Get Up! and sat down to listen.
Given Ben Harper’s genre-bending career, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Get Up! is not a recital of your typical 12-bar-two-repeated-lines-then-a-rhyming-line blues numbers. I’ve seen several reviews that emphasized the blues aspect of the music, so I could easily get away with saying that Get Up! is the most exciting blues album to come along in years, and in a way, it is. But Get Up! is more than that. Get Up! synthesizes several musical genres, including the blues, in stunningly dramatic fashion. Every song grabs your attention, and every song grabs your attention for a completely different reason. In terms of blues, I think Get Up! can be defined as blues revitalized, as Ben and Charlie aren’t afraid to push the limits in the interest of capturing the feeling that is at the core of great blues.
You hear this very clearly on the first cut, “Don’t Look Twice.” The song starts with a Delta-like arrangement, featuring Ben on the acoustic guitar and vocals and Charlie entering on the harp after the first chorus. Ben’s guitar pattern even becomes asynchronous from time to time, echoing the patterns of the old Delta guys like Charlie Patton who constantly messed with rhythmic expectations to follow the feeling. Right before the second chorus, our expectations that we’re going to hear a sweet acoustic blues number are delightfully shattered with a drum roll and the entry of bass and electric guitar; it feels like we’ve been shot from a cannon all the way from Clarksville, Mississippi to late night Chicago. What’s really amazing is how the shift transforms Charlie’s harmonica from something you’d hear on a rickety porch on a hot, humid day to a wicked, gorgeously sinful instrument. When Charlie gets an extended solo over the Chicago background towards the end of the song, he blows that sucker for all it’s worth in one of the best harmonica solos I’ve ever heard.
“I’m In and Out and I’m Gone” doesn’t shit around; it starts out with a pattern similar to Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man” and just kicks ass from start to finish with tight rhythm, great harmonica-vocal interplay and another great solo from Charlie. “We Can’t End This Way,” with its loose feel, hand-clapping and gospel chorus is like being transported back in time to a revival meeting or traveling medicine show. Ben Harper’s lyrics, though, focus on the reality of this world rather than the Promised Land:
There’s a man on the corner
Begging for help
There’s a man that walks past him
And he’s drowning in wealth
Who doesn’t understand
How disappointment destroys the soul
Every look of shame is a wound that will never heal
“I Don’t Believe a Word You Say” is a heavier number with tremendous bass and drum work backing up Ben’s intense vocal, Charlie’s simmering harp and Jason Mozersky’s screaming lead guitar. This is the first song on the album that reminds us that the blues is timeless, because what Ben’s talking about is the predominance of bullshit in our culture today, something we should all feel pretty fucking bluesy about:
I see your mouth moving
But there’s a circus coming out
Always busy proving
What the world is all about . . .
Blame it on hard living
Blame it on the times
Blame it on the victims
All stumbling behind
I don’t even need to look you in the eye
I don’t believe a word you say.
As Charlie put it during the interview he and Ben did for Downbeat, “Yeah, even if there wasn’t any music called the blues, we’d still have the blues (laughs.) Just read the newspaper. Lucky for us, we have a way to express that feeling through music.”
The loveliest song on Get Up! has to be “You Found Another Lover (I Lost Another Friend).” This poignant number about the emotional impact of a breakup has brought tears to my eyes every time I’ve heard it. Ben’s vocal is tinged with a complex combination of sadness, regret and resignation; Charlie plays the harp with such sensitivity that he sounds like a friend giving the singer comfort. Interviews with both have repeatedly emphasized the strong connection they formed during the recording of Get Up! and the sweet synergy here is absolute proof of two guys together in the zone.
The one thing they never do on Get Up! is let up, and the most powerful song on the album comes next with “I Ride at Dawn,” a song that will move you, challenge you and maybe even anger you. The website describes the narrative as “a ghostly soldier awaits his duty but laments the mind-numbing futility of war.” That view is certainly supported by the realpolitik lines, “Give a man a hundred years/He’ll want a hundred more/Give him a hundred choices/And he still chooses war.” Still, it seems a contradiction when the narrator claims that he’s “Done things I didn’t know I could/For the common good” and when he tells the crying women left behind, “You’ll hear my medals ringing” and “You’ll know I marched to glory and proudly to my grave.” At first, I strongly resisted those sentiments, believing that glory in war is the most absurd concept in the human canon; after listening again several times I realized the narrator is like a condemned man grasping for something to give his participation in the ridiculous act of war some meaning. This intense moral debate is played over a dark, haunting background emphasizing the low notes supported by a snare faintly playing a march rhythm that reflects the sinking feeling of inevitability. Regardless of one’s interpretation, this is a courageous piece, and you can’t give enough credit to Ben Harper and bassist Jessie Ingalls for writing this magnificent song.
“Blood Side Out” takes us back to Chicago-style, a slamming ass-kicker with fiery vocals. It’s followed by the title track, driven by a bass run that absolutely slays me. The song is about a convict in denial about reality; the repetition of the phrase “I have a right” is pure empty bravado. The longest song on the album, it becomes more and more mesmerizing as the musicians trade leads back and forth while never interrupting the flow. “She Got Kick” is a classic I-IV-V pattern with a classic blues verse structure; here the treat for me is Jason’s counterpoint guitar to Ben’s lead vocal.
The album ends with a classic slow blues number, “All That Matters Now,” faintly reminiscent of some of Ray Charles’ best work. What I love about this song is the restraint the musicians exercise. This could have easily been turned into something grand and overly complex, but the band plays it the way a farewell should be played, with understatement. The message in the song is simple but so intensely human: life is hard, but “we’re together, and that’s all that matters now.” The narrator wants to leave the mistakes and regrets for another time (“let me down easy/at least tonight”) and feel the simple but endlessly comforting presence of human togetherness.
This is another album I hated to hear end. Get Up! is a shining example of musical collaboration, a courageous and extraordinarily successful attempt to expand and re-energize blues in the 21st Century. When I first heard the album all the way through, I cried out, “Thank you!” to the empty room. I’ve listened to it numerous times since then, and I still feel the same.