On paper the pairing appears unlikely -- one was born in ’69, the other turns 69 next week -- but Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite bridge their age gap with a proper album that traces their bond to the late ’90s. Blues great John Lee Hooker recruited them for a session, and that first meeting inspired another in 2003, when Harper backed Musselwhite on his Grammy-nominated Sanctuary. Get Up! reunites these old souls a decade later, with Harper leading the effort on his twelfth album and first for Stax.
Few musicians collaborate as often as Harper does, logging studio time over the last ten years with a roster of outfits ranging from the Innocent Criminals, his longtime lineup, to the Blind Boys of Alabama, Fistful of Mercy, and Relentless7. Get Up! is the latter band’s third record with Harper since 2009, and the group has learned to assert its powerhouse authority precisely when the song calls for it. The finest instance: a three-minute jam within the six-minute title cut, built on Jesse Ingalls’ full bassline and Jordan Richardson’s in-the-pocket drumming, a gem of a groove all the way through its fadeout. The Led Zeppelin flair running through the group’s White Lies For Dark Times rears its head sparingly here, peppering this blues landscape with bitter barnburners like “I Don’t Believe A Word You Say” and “Blood Side Out.”
Get Up! otherwise stands as a different album than fans of Harper’s early period might expect. Most will appreciate “You Found Another Lover (I Lost Another Friend),” a vintage -- if recycled -- Harper heartbreaker, a delicate match for Musselwhite’s harmonica accompaniment. Where Relentless7’s Give Till It’s Gone gave to excess and elaborate production, Get Up! captures a rawer, leaner set.
For his part, blues statesman Musselwhite plays the sidekick role to his advantage, reserving his instrumental wailing for moments that best suit Harper’s lap-steel guitar warble. Get Up! shifts from a shuffle to a soulful scream and back again, its scattered sequence seesawing from Harper’s familiar spunk of “She Got Kick” to the eerie war commentary of “I Ride At Dawn” to “We Can’t End This Way,” a gospel rollicker owed much to his work with the Blind Boys.
“You have to know when to really put your foot on the gas with certain bands,” Harper acknowledged in 2010, “and when to put your foot on the brake, too.” This says plenty about his pursuits and need to shake things up, though loyalists should accept Get Up! for what it is: an adequate companion to Harper’s recent ballads collection, By My Side, and a document of what’s possible between a veteran and one approaching that status.