Ben Harper is a superstar almost everywhere except his home in the US and, to a lesser extent, the UK.
His following over here is not huge but the passion he draws out of his fans is incredible and last night he, with Charlie Musselwhite, got two full-on standing ovations in a set that was full of superb music and dark and light moods.
He has played a remarkable number of styles over the years – Blues, Folk, Reggae, Soul, Gospel, Rock, Roots – but last night was really about showing his Blues and Roots side and Musselwhite is the perfect foil. He didn’t just accompany Harper; his harmonica produced a great deal of the dynamic and shading in the music.
Harper seems to have tempered some of his politicising since the last time I saw him; he is still committed to causes and the talk he gave at the end showed that his social conscience is still very much intact but it didn’t get in the way of his music and the treats of his slide playing and his strong, high voice is as good as ever.
The pair featured the entire Get Up! album as well as some Harper and Musselwhite classics and a monster When The Levee Breaks with the crowd getting behind them all the way.
They opened with Get Up! with Harper on his Telecaster but he very quickly sat down to play his Weissenborn Lap Slide on a massive I Don’t Believe A Word You Say and the set flew by with regular changes in pace and even seeing Musselwhite taking the lead on vocals for a couple of numbers.
One of the features of the set is the way that Harper draws on the Blues history that he grew up with in his grandparents Folk music store and museum, but takes it into a new, modern, place. By linking up with a master such as Charlie Musselwhite he both acknowledges his heroes such as Skip James or Son House but addresses modern takes on the travails and traumas that those greats encountered. He relates to the human spirit as much as Elmore James ever did and with his high, almost falsetto, voice adds to the emotion of songs like Don’t Look Twice.
The pair crossed over a number of styles including Delta and Louisiana Blues. Parlour piano Blues and a chugging Chicago style and when Harper exploded into furious solos on his lap-slide he ratcheted the intensity to breathtaking levels. Musselwhite was making some fine noises on his array of harps, often trading licks with guitarist Jason Mozersky. Jimmy Paxson’s drumming was a highlight and his partnership with bassplayer Jesse Ingalls was a springboard for much of the overall power and subtlety of the band.
As is his style, Harper hardly acknowledged the audience during the main set with his hat low down and hiding his eyes but the thanks he gave to the standing and cheering mass at the end seemed truly pleased and when he stepped beyond the mike to sing directly to the audience on All That Matters Now – and filled the place without a microphone – he was as close to the crowd as I have seen him.
The ovations were richly deserved, for both the quality of the playing and the music but also because Ben Harper is a genuine artist who endears himself to his audience without pandering.
A magical evening and too short at nearly 2 hours!
- Get Up! (from Get Up!, 2013)
- I Don’t Believe A Word You Say (from Get Up!, 2013)
- The Blues Overtook Me (from Charlie Musselwhite’s Deluxe Edition, 2005)
- Don’t Look Twice (from Get Up!, 2013)
- When It’s Good (from Ben Harper’s Diamonds on the Inside, 2003)
- She Got Kick (from Get Up!, 2013)
- I’m In I’m Out And I’m Gone (from Get Up!, 2013)
- Blood Side Out (from Get Up!, 2013)
- Homeless Child (from Ben Harper’s The Will to Live, 1997)
- I Ride At Dawn (from Get Up!, 2013)
- I’m Goin’ Home (from Charlie Musselwhite’s Curtain Call Cocktails, 1982)
- When The Levee Breaks (cover of Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy song)
- We Can’t End This Way (from Get Up!, 2013)
- Long Legged Woman (from Charlie Musselwhite’s Lahnsteiner Blues Festival, 2007)
- You Found Another Lover (I Lost Another Friend) (from Get Up!, 2013)
- All That Matters Now (from Get Up!, 2013)
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