Tag Archives: the blues

Elmore James – Shake Your Moneymaker: The Best of the Fire Sessions – Classic Music Review

I am temporarily suspending my boycott of American music for one day, for two very good reasons:

  • I wanted to acknowledge the ray of hope ignited by Nancy Pelosi. My former congresswoman finally got off her bony little ass and kick-started the painfully long-overdue impeachment process of he-who-shall-not-be-named.
  • But just like he-who-shall-not-be-named . . . I was BAITED BY A TWEET!

My response was succinct and immediate (accounting for the time difference):

Though I clearly and unashamedly state on the blog’s front page that my top priorities in life are sex and music (with baseball now a distant third), the wording gives the impression that I view sex and music as separate and distinct experiences. It’s more accurate to describe the relationship as partially symbiotic: I can enjoy music that doesn’t ignite my libido, but I can’t imagine fucking without music. While the origins of this inter-dependency probably lie in not wanting my parents to hear the grunts, groans and cries of delight emanating from my bedroom when I was fucking boys and girls in my teens (not that they would have given a shit), I eventually learned that certain kinds of music can add tension, drama and color to the sexual experience. This is particularly true in BDSM, where lengthy scenes integrating foreplay and various forms of orgasmic stimulation are the norm. I love to make my entrance to music, to pose suggestively to music and get my rocks off while the music is throbbing in the background, mirroring the throbbing of the bodies engaged in the act.

Most of the music I use in a scene is kick-ass rock, jazz, samba, R&B, soul and Chicago blues—music that makes your hips grind, music with attitude. And no single artist appears more often on my fuck playlists than Elmore James, a man who had attitude down pat.

It’s stunning that we still lack a full-blown biography of the man who influenced a generation of rock and blues guitarists, but from the bits and pieces in encyclopedia entries, we can conclude Elmore James was an introvert, rather bashful type who only emerged from his shell when he had a guitar in hand and a microphone close to his lips. Introversion is one of those good things/bad things, for while introverts tend to have an exceptional ability to concentrate that allows them to explore a given field in depth, they also tend to keep many thoughts and feelings to themselves, building up a huge amount of pressure in the inner boiler that often manifests itself in physical breakdowns. Elmore James was diagnosed with heart disease in 1957 at the age of thirty-nine; six years later he was dead at the age of forty-five, having ignored the doctor’s advice to cut down on his drinking and chill out.

You might say, “Gee, if only Elmore had taken care of himself, he could have lived to a ripe old age.” To which I respond, “Yeah, but he wouldn’t have been Elmore James.” The introverted intensity that defined his life and manifested itself with crystal clarity through his music may have killed him, but had he become a frightened middle-aged musician trying to hang on for dear life, we’d remember Elmore James as someone who lived way past his prime rather than a guy who left it all on the playing field.

The thought process that led Elmore James to attach a pickup to a Kay dreadnought guitar with high action and then opt to fingerpick in order to achieve the fat, raunchy sound he wanted is not available to us, but it clearly marks him as a man who refused to be stopped in the pursuit of the sound he wanted to achieve. Slide players back in Elmore’s day couldn’t go to Sweetwater.com, read the online guide “How to Choose the Right Guitar Slide for You” and then select from a wide range of state-of-the-art slides in glass, brass and porcelain. Well, when you ain’t got nothin’ you look around the house for something that will do (like those plastic bread clips you can use as an emergency guitar pick). According to Hal Leonard’s tabs-and-techniques manual, Elmore James – Master of the Electric Slide Guitar, “Elmore’s slide was the metal slip that fits over a tube in old radios and record players. These tube covers were made of light metal, often aluminum, and if one was too small for his finger, Elmore sawed it open with a hacksaw.” This sounds like a setup that most people today would associate with a desperate busker trying to earn a few pennies from the charitably-minded, but in the hands of Elmore James, it sounds like the guitar equivalent of a Stradivarius. The Kay wasn’t his only ax, but it’s the one he probably used for “most of his slide playing, both performing and recording,” and is now part of the treasure trove in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

James learned at the feet of Robert Johnson and Sonny Boy Williamson II during his youth on the Mississippi Delta, and though you can certainly hear their influence in his music (especially in the early 50’s recordings), his expression of the blues at this later stage of his career is all his own. This is particularly noticeable in his vocals, which are marked by an unusual intensity and unbridled confidence. In many of his vocals, there is an undeniable urgency in his timbre, perhaps a manifestation of all that internal pressure, or perhaps fueled by the knowledge that he was living on borrowed time. Whatever the cause, listening to Elmore James sing gives you the impression that this is a man who needs to impart a message that is essential to his very existence. As he wrote most of his material—material that strictly adheres to blues norms—the result was a fresh take on the art that demonstrated the enduring vitality of the blues.

The Best of the Fire Sessions features most of his signature songs, some in the form of remakes of earlier releases. As these are from multiple recording sessions, the album features a variety of backing musicians depending on who happened to be in town on the recording date. No matter—Elmore James was an accomplished bandleader who worked with some of the best blues musicians of the time, and when you work for a leader with a clear artistic vision, it’s a lot easier to figure out where you fit in and what you can add to the mix.

So without further ado . . .

“Shake Your Moneymaker”: The collection is bookended by two classics, but though one could argue that “Dust My Broom” should have come first due to its status as Elmore’s first hit, the album version is a remake, so the timeline hardly matters. My review of “Shake Your Moneymaker” in the Dad’s 45’s series wasn’t as much a review as an emotional-sexual reaction to both the orgasmic experience of finding the record in his collection and the orgasmic experience of the song itself. “I had been planning to do a full review of Elmore James’ The Best of the Fire Sessions, but every time I started to write it, it sounded more like porn than a music review,” I wrote, and my commentary on the song suffered from trying to write in bitch-in-heat mode.

What is unique about Elmore’s vocal approach to this song is his restraint, eschewing the gravelly belt-out approach featured in many of his classics. He sounds cool and collected, like a man sitting in a tall, upholstered leather chair with cognac and cigar, savoring the merchandise. Although some women may find it offensive to refer to a woman’s nether regions as a “moneymaker,” the lyrics clearly indicate that Elmore was unsuccessful in fulfilling his desire to plunge his member into the honeypots and back ends of two different women. This tells me he was attempting to maintain his self-esteem by writing the whole thing off to the cynical motivation of unliberated women to trade pussy for a payoff. So while Elmore may pride himself on having the biggest dick in town, he knows he can’t compete in the financial arena, so he’s shit out of luck and headed for the (cold) showers.

The music is subtly inviting, and before long you’ll be shaking your moneymaker with abandon. Elmore uses his go-to tuning (open D); his 12th fret call-and-response bending slides are sweet and expressive. Johnny “Big Moose” Walker defies his nickname and gives us a smooth, rolling boogie on the piano, syncing perfectly with King Mose on the skins. While Jeremy Spencer’s tribute performance on Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac rocks harder, it doesn’t come close to capturing the sheer sexuality of the original.

“Look on Yonder Wall”: James modified the lyrics to this Memphis Jimmy tale of a wounded veteran returning home from WWII who shacks up with another veteran’s squeeze only to learn that hubby is on his way back to the States to reclaim his property. Not to worry: Elmore’s already made other arrangements and will gladly step aside for a fellow vet:

Your husband went to the war, and you know it was tough
I don’t know how many men he killed but I know he killed enough
Look on yonder wall and hand me down my walking came
I got me another woman, now baby, yon come your man

War does tend to throw all the usual norms out the window for a while. I hope there wasn’t a sequel featuring the hubby hunting down Elmore to “thank” him for services rendered to the missus in his absence.

James’ version is slightly more upbeat than the original, and the comparatively rare appearance of an accompanying harmonica (courtesy of Sammy Myers) gives this piece a front porch feel. I absolutely love the nimble display of Elmore’s fretboard skills in the introduction.

“The Sky Is Crying”: This is a James classic that was played at Duane Allman’s funeral, and has been covered by other luminaries such as The Yardbirds, Albert King, Little Walter, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Etta James. The debate about Elmore’s slide setup rages on, with Homesick James claiming studio accident, others claiming a different amp and Ry Cooder insisting that Elmore had abandoned the Kay setup for this recording. I think all three views have validity: it certainly isn’t his Kay guitar; James certainly could have plugged into a different amp; and the omnipresence of reverb could indicate an acoustic interaction with open space, intensifying any reverb coming through the amp. Whatever it is, it sounds fucking great—a distant, terribly lonely expression of loss. James’ lyrical imagery—“The sky is crying, look at the tears roll down the street”—was inspired by one of those tremendous downpours that often accompany thunderstorms in Chicago and the greater Midwest, a powerful symbol of the destructive power of loss and the consequent helplessness. Elmore’s vocal balances command and heartfelt emotion, his phrasing emphatic without crossing the line into histrionics. Here he is backed by his usual guys, The Broomdusters, and the synergy inherent in a trusting relationship shines throughout the song. The boys knew their man and his tendencies, and provide just enough backing for you to know that if they weren’t there they would be sorely missed . . . and no more. That support gives Elmore plenty of room to rip, and “The Sky Is Crying” is full of fills that absolutely knock me out. Kudos to The Broomdusters: J. T. Brown on saxophone, Johnny Jones on piano, Odie Payne on drums, and Homesick James on bass.

“Rollin’ and Tumblin'”: A blues classic recorded by a slew of artists, the Muddy Watters and Cream versions are probably the most familiar to the listening audience. James’ version is certainly more intense than Muddy’s but not over-the-top like Cream’s. The Johnny Winter version is . . . well, meh . . . and the latest rendition featuring Jeff Beck on guitar and Imogen Heap on vocals is like . . . what the fuck? Personally, I’ll take the 1925 original “Roll and Tumble Blues” by Hambone Willie Newbern for its authenticity and continue to wonder why this particular song has generated so many cover versions. Not my favorite Elmore James contribution.

“Held My Baby Last Night”: Goddamn—this is one seriously sexy breakup song. Elmore is in fine voice as he belts out this lament for a relationship on the skids, and once again The Broomdusters provide a suitable background for the emotional dynamic expressed through his vocal pleas for freedom and the heartfelt riffs delivered between lines. The drone of J. T. Brown’s saxophone establishes a mournful mood of a love gone wrong while Odie Payne’s more active drumming reinforces the stutter-stop communication that invariably accompanies separation. I like to put this one at the end of fuck playlists when my lover and I are finishing off the booze and enjoying our post-fuck cigarettes while stroking each other with messages of reassurance.

“I’m Worried”: This track from the posthumous release The Sky Is Crying is a tightly played number featuring Elmore laying out some classic blues figures and a few clever variations from the norm toward the end of the song. I think the song could have been a stronger track with The Broomdusters; alas and alack, Homesick James is pretty much on his own, surrounded by unknown studio musicians who do their bit, pick up their checks and move on. This so-so support places Elmore in the position of having to save the song, which he does with aplomb because he’s Elmore Fucking James, people!

“Done Somebody Wrong”: Powerful stuff here. A black man trying to reconcile the teachings of Christ with the cruelty-laden apartheid of Jim Crow faces a task equivalent to Sisyphus pushing that damned boulder up the hill for all eternity. The downside of having a sense of moral responsibility is that the morally responsible person develops a tendency to feel responsible for every misfortune that comes their way, particularly when frightened. Here Elmore is blaming himself for the loss of his baby, but the story is easily translatable to the African-American experience. “Man, what did I do wrong?” is a sadly pathetic question for which there is no answer because no, you didn’t do anything wrong. The syncopated two-beat-rest pattern certainly draws the listener’s interest, but Elmore’s vocal is the main attraction—a pleading, anxiety-ridden expression of the search for meaning and forgiveness.

“Fine Little Mama”: The flip side to “Done Somebody Wrong” features a nice easy mid-tempo beat, outstanding guitar work and two renditions of Elmore’s delightful groans of satisfaction: “Hmmmm-hmm.” I love to hear that sound from any man I fuck, as it’s a foreplay cue that tells me I’ve found his sweet spot with either hand or mouth. Apparently his Fine Little Mama knows exactly what to do, as confirmed in the closing verse when Elmore admits, “Well, when she start the lovin’/My love come tumblin’ down.”

Uh oh. Sounds like premature ejaculation or a guy that can’t hold back long enough to give me some deep thrust pleasure. THAT IS NOT MY IMAGE OF ELMORE JAMES. Well, she is a “red hot mama,” and hot women do have a tendency to overwhelm even the best of men, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

Shit, this is turning into a porn review, but goddamnit, that’s how I respond to Elmore James.

“Anna Lee”: The b-side of the final single Elmore released in his lifetime features erotic, groaning baritone sax from Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams and smoky jazz-tinged trumpet from Danny Moore, who would go on to play with Yusef Lateef, Les McCann and Wes Montgomery. Elmore more than holds his own in the presence of these jazz musicians and the timbre of his strong and confident vocal tells us that he loved working with a larger combo and was thrilled to the expand the blues with greater sonic variation. I can’t leave the song without extending appreciation to drummer Johnny Williams, who kills the finish with an emphatic run that truly seals the deal. I have no doubt that had Elmore James lived a bit longer he would have steered his core blues arrangements towards jazz sensibilities.

“Stranger Blues”: Tampa Red had to find a way into this collection, and this modified version of one of his lesser-known songs pays suitable tribute to one of the earliest (single-string) slide players (and one of the first to use the National steel guitar). Red did a lot of what were called “hokum” songs—bawdy tunes filled with double entendres like “Tight Like That” by Ma Rainey. This song takes on a darker cast as it deals with the mass migration of African-Americans to the northern states in search of jobs during the WWII manufacturing boom. Elmore’s version opens with a riff that sounds very close to the main riff of “What’d I Say?” and soon settles into an aggressive samba-like beat enhanced by the jazz trumpet offerings of Danny Moore. The baseline story is that the narrator feels like an outcast in northern climes and decides to return to the Deep South “if I wear out 99 pairs of shoes.” You may wonder any African-American would want to return to the land of Jim Crow and the KKK, but though they didn’t have to worry too much about white terrorism up north, they experienced the more subtle and insidious forms of racism, particularly when it came to choosing a neighborhood. And for many people, there is an inexorable pull towards home, no matter how shitty a place it might have been. That paradox would give anyone the blues, and choosing to record this song at the dawn of the activist phase of the Civil Rights Movement formed a coded but clear message that Elmore James felt the sting of second-class citizenship and wanted to say something about that intolerable condition.

“Something Inside of Me”: I don’t mean to engage in a weird form of schadenfreude, but this “my baby left me” slow blues is one sexy bitch of a song. Elmore gives it everything he’s got and then some—a full-throated passionate vocal married to a cascading variety of riffs from nearly every spot on the fretboard. Some of the riffs sound like a man trying to hold it together; others go deep down the bottom strings to capture the darker thoughts of bitterness and despair; still others try to rise to the heavens but are held back by hints of dissonance. At brief moments Elmore gives the rhythm a push, indicating he is totally immersed in the overall flow of the song. An absolutely hypnotic grinder that makes you want to get oh so close to your baby.

Cigarette!

“Early One Morning”: A nice little pick-me-up (assuming you and your baby have exhausted every drop of passion) in the form of mid-tempo blues . . . until you get tired of the saxophone repeating the same fucking figure ad infinitum. Still, Elmore gives a powerful vocal performance, making the short trip more than worthwhile.

“Sunnyland”: Robert Johnson’s influence is obvious in this straight-up, don’t mess with me rollicking blues number. This was another posthumous release featuring King Mose and Big Moose Walker, a remake of a 1954 b-side (originally titled “Sunny Land”). Sunnyland, by the way, was the name of the train that Elmore’s baby used to hightail it out of town. The delightful twist in the story comes when baby writes to Elmore to say she’s coming home . . . under one condition: “Cool down papa, you better change your ways.” Like the aforementioned Mr. Johnson (who admitted he wanted to beat his woman till he got satisfied), Elmore took the first step towards toxic male recovery by admitting he’d been a fucking asshole.

“Standing at the Crossroads”: This (remake) was the A-side of the “Sunny Land” single back in its 1954 form, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it was the first concept single. Both songs deal with the uniquely masculine choice: do I beat the crap out of my unsatisfactory baby or do I move on to a hotter, more compliant babe? Elmore’s tale omits the Johnsonian pleas for assistance from a higher being, preferring to work things out for himself. I love how he leaves us hanging right there on the crossroads, clueless as to what he’s going to do next. Despite his dismissal of the lord’s assistance, Elmore sounds remarkably like a hell-fire preacher (and just as horny).

“My Bleeding Heart”: I find it unbelievable that one of Elmore James’ greatest songs wasn’t rushed into the stores as soon as the master was finished but had to wait four long years to see daylight as a posthumous release. It’s no wonder that Jimi Hendrix made several attempts to duplicate its intensity while fashioning his unique interpretation of the original, finally getting it right in the live versions. Elmore’s original is intensity squared, opening with a disarming, understated set of riffs, gradually raising the heat through a no-holds-barred vocal performance that builds to a hard-picked bending crescendo as the horns of Danny Moore and Johnny Williams cry out in parallel agony. The blues rarely gets better than this.

“Dust My Broom”: This remake of Elmore’s first big hit is a radical departure from the original, which landed somewhere between the Delta and Chi-town. The Fire remake is 100% Chicago with horns blaring, percussion thumping, and Elmore ripping it like there’s no tomorrow. The difference between the two vocals couldn’t be greater, as young Elmore was terrified of recording, and his comparatively thin voice was further hampered by a common early-fifties recording technique: direct-to-disc with everyone on the same microphone. What is special about the original is the slide guitar on overdrive with that famous repeating triplet figure simmering in vibrato and delivered machine-gun style. The remake features Elmore with his fully-matured voice, laying out the vocal with complete command. While I appreciate the inventiveness of the original, I’m forever attracted to hot-and-steamy as well as a man in total command of all his faculties, whether real or in my imagination.

The Best of the Fire Sessions is a fully engaging listening experience, whether you’re libidinially oriented, emotionally centered or a music aficionado searching for excellence. The tragic aspect of his short existence comes through clearly in his stylistic development and the late-stage jazz leanings that reveal tremendous potential, but the sheer joy of listening to a man expressing heart, soul and fire through his music moves the discussion from what could have been to oh, my fucking god, listen to what this man is laying down.

And now, back to the Brits.

Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite – Get Up! – Review

Click to link to Ben Harper's website for buy links and further education.

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 interests 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 in 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’s 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 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.”

Amen.

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 reflect 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 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 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.

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