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Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite

Hamer Hall, July 11, 2018
Review: Garry Chapman Photos: Jason Rosewarne

Ben Harper is no stranger to our shores. Charlie Musselwhite is a regular visitor too. This year they’re touring Australia together to promote their latest blues album, No Mercy In This Land. They’ll play seven shows, beginning with last night’s Melbourne performance and ending their brief tour at the Sydney Opera House on July 22. You can also catch them in Perth, Canberra, Brisbane and at Splendour in the Grass in Byron Bay.

Harper and Musselwhite first paired up on 2013’s Get Up! Album. The album featured ten new songs, a collection of blues, roots and rocking tunes that earned them a Grammy for Best Blues Album the following year.

No Mercy In This Land, their second collaboration, was released in March this year. There are ten more new songs, also in the blues-roots genre, with nods to folk, gospel, country and soul, that showcase Harper’s superb songwriting, vocal and instrumental talents and Musselwhite’s masterful blues harp playing.

Harper’s band from the recording sessions joined them on this tour. They are Jason Mozersky on electric guitar, Jesse Ingalls on bass (and piano on All That Matters Now), and Jimmy Paxson on drums. The band played tight bluesy rhythms and the groove they created kept the Hamer Hall audience’s toes tapping throughout the set.

But it was Harper’s stellar guitar playing and soulful vocals and Musselwhite’s deft harmonica artistry that stole the show. Harper played a range of instruments during the evening, and Musselwhite alternated between a selection of harmonicas from his well-travelled silver instrument case. Harper has crafted the tunes for the pair’s two albums to draw on the wealth of Musselwhite’s harp playing skills, honed over the years from playing with legends like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and John Lee Hooker.

It was only on The Blues Overtook Me and I’m Going Home that Musselwhite provided lead vocals, and he shared vocal duties with Harper on the first song of the encore, No Mercy In This Land. Harper’s singing on the other numbers was at times gutsy and raw, at times delicate and sweet, and always soulful and charged with emotion. On the slow When Love is Not Enough, as the band brought the mood in the hall down, Harper removed his hat and stood with hands in his pockets at the microphone, closed his eyes and sang from the heart. It was powerful, live performance at its best.

I Ride At Dawn, from Get Up!, was a rocking track that gave the band members a great opportunity to strut their stuff. At its conclusion, Harper announced that it was time for dedications. “I’ll have one,” yelled a patron, but Harper smiled and responded, “No, you deserve better!” He then proceeded to dedicate the next song to “the next Ex-President of the United States. I can’t even say his name!”, before launching into the spirited I Don’t Believe a Word You Say.

Other numbers that had the feet tapping were I’m In, I’m Out and I’m Gone from Get Up!, (which features a strong groove reminiscent of the familiar riff from Bowie’s Jean Genie), Yer Blues (a Beatles cover from the White Album) and the rollicking blues of Musselwhite’s Long Legged Woman.

The final number of the main set was When the Levee Breaks, first written and performed almost ninety years ago by Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy, and more recently featuring in the Led Zeppelin repertoire. Despite its long history, this song’s upbeat treatment by Harper, Musselwhite and companions made this classic blues song sound as contemporary as anything written for the new album. “If it keeps on raining,” Harper growled, “levee’s gonna break,” his menacing vocals eerily connecting the patrons with the fears that had gripped the world earlier in the week as the threat of rain hampered rescue efforts in Thailand. It was a stunning performance, with thundering rhythms behind Musselwhite’s wailing harp, that brought the main set to a close.

“It’s a privilege to be back here,” Harper offered as the band returned for the encore. The first song, the title track of the new album, No Mercy In This Land, returned to the political agenda, asking the question so relevant in Trump’s America, “Won’t you help me to understand … Is there no mercy in this land?”

For the final number, All That Matters Now, Ingalls set aside his bass and moved to the piano. Harper put down his guitar, removed his hat, and stood at the microphone once more, hands in pockets, and sang in a soulful voice, backed by the plaintive strains of Musselwhite’s harmonica. The patrons dancing in the aisles returned to their seats as the tempo slowed. Harper pushed away the microphone. He stood at the front of the stage, closed his eyes and sang, raw with emotion, and his voice carried to every corner of the hall. His connection with the audience was undeniable. They stood in unison to applaud the performance of these two giants of blues roots music. It was an evening to remember.

Ben Harper – electric guitar, slide guitar, acoustic guitar, piano, vocals
Charlie Musselwhite – harmonica, vocals
Jimmy Paxson – drums
Jason Mozersky – electric guitar
Jesse Ingalls – bass, piano

When I Go
Bad Habits
The Blues Overtook Me
Love and Trust
I Ride at Dawn
I Don’t Believe a Word You Say
I’m In, I’m Out and I’m Gone
Nothing at All
Trust You to Dig My Grave
Found the One
I’m Going Home
Blood Side Out
When Love is Not Enough
When the Levee Breaks
No Mercy in This Land
The Bottle Wins Again (Blues)
Long Legged Woman
Yer Blues
All That Matters Now

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