Australian Guitar - - Feature -

Ben Harper’s mu­si­cal out­put has al­ways been di­verse, yet it’s al­ways been linked to­gether by a touch of the blues. It’s in his note choices, his sense of groove and his over­all ap­pre­ci­a­tion for feel. Blues mu­si­cians tend to be drawn to each other – call it kismet, call it kin­dred spir­its, call it a com­mu­nity built on the tra­di­tion of hand­ing the mu­sic down from one gen­er­a­tion to an­other – but it was ex­actly this recog­ni­tion of com­mon ground that led blues leg­end John Lee Hooker to in­tro­duce Harper to harpist and vo­cal­ist Char­lie Mus­sel­white when he sensed that the two would con­nect mu­si­cally.

A na­tive of Kosciusko, Mis­sis­sippi, Mus­sel­white’s early life was a clas­sic blues story: he was dig­ging ditches, lay­ing con­crete and run­ning moon­shine be­fore hit­ting High­way 51 to Chicago, where he con­nected with Muddy Wa­ters, Ju­nior Wells, Sonny Boy Wil­liamson, Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf and Lit­tle Wal­ter. The re­sult of Hooker’s in­tro­duc­tion was a new record­ing of the clas­sic “Burnin’ Hell” – a track that was even­tu­ally re­leased on his com­pi­la­tion al­bum

TheBestOfFriends, which fea­tured duets with Eric Clap­ton, Ry Cooder, Car­los San­tana, Jim­mie Vaughan, Bon­nie Raitt, Robert Cray and more.

Hooker def­i­nitely knew what he was do­ing. Harper and Mus­sel­white kept in touch, and in 2013 they re­leased their col­lab­o­ra­tive al­bum GetUp!, which de­buted at #1 on the Bill­board Blues Al­bums Chart and took out the Grammy for Best Blues Al­bum in 2014. No

Mer­cyInThisLand is the first al­bum of new mu­sic from Harper and Mus­sel­white since, and the it goes deeper into the mu­si­cal telepa­thy es­tab­lished be­tween the two so long ago. It’s a liv­ing doc­u­ment of where blues is to­day, cross­ing the gen­er­a­tional gap and show­ing that the genre is still find­ing new roads to take.

But the ques­tion re­mains: in a mu­si­cal cli­mate where sales are down and stream­ing mu­sic on a smart­phone is the most com­mon way to hear it, how is the blues hold­ing up?

“I think blues is hold­ing up great be­cause the de­mo­graphic doesn’t know how to stream free mu­sic,” Harper laughs. “No, it’s hold­ing up on one side but tak­ing it in on the other – just like ev­ery­thing. God bless the ex­pe­di­ency of stream­ing, but noth­ing that fast ever pays. It’s great for the im­me­di­acy of it though. I love lis­ten­ing to old John Coltrane in­ter­views and stuff like that. I’m guilty of in­dulging in that, which is my un­do­ing!”

And so it is that with three decades gone since the blues boom of the 1980s, the genre seems to have re­turned to its live-on­stage, in-the-mo­ment in­car­na­tion. Stream­ing can’t take away the joy of see­ing a live show and par­tic­i­pat­ing in a mo­ment that will never be re­peated.

“That’s true, and it can’t take away the joy of learn­ing an in­stru­ment, hav­ing those bloody fin­ger­tips for the first time and play­ing through it,” Harper says. “Writ­ing your first song, mem­o­ris­ing your first lyrics... No­body learns a song or writes a song to learn money. If you do it, it’s gotta be a byprod­uct of your love and pas­sion for the art it­self. And there will al­ways be those kids com­ing up.”

The mu­si­cal di­a­logue be­tween Harper and Mus­sel­white is some­thing that needs to be cap­tured live in the room, all hands on deck. In this case, that room in was The Vil­lage Stu­dios in Santa Monica, Cal­i­for­nia – a leg­endary stu­dio with four decades of his­tory record­ing ev­ery­one from Fleet­wood Mac, The Rolling Stones, B.B. King and Bob Dy­lan to cur­rent artists like Lady Gaga, Cold­play, Tay­lor Swift and John Mayer (and its Moroc­can Ball­room needs to be seen to be be­lieved, dou­bling as a stu­dio and an event space).

The songs on NoMer­cyInThisTown – more than were needed for the fi­nal cut – were pre­pared a few weeks ahead of the ses­sions in or­der to sound out a vibe for which songs the mu­si­cians were grav­i­tat­ing to­wards. The songs are pro­vided to the band – Jimmy Pax­son on drums, Jesse In­galls on bass, Ja­son Mozursky on sec­ond gui­tar and Char­lie Mus­sel­white on harp and vo­cals – with plenty of room for im­pro­vised el­e­ments.

“Ev­ery­one con­trib­utes their ar­ti­san­ship, and that be­comes the crown jewel of the process,” Harper says. “The chem­istry is the main in­gre­di­ent in what you’re hear­ing – not just with the band, but also the en­gi­neer.”

All en­gi­neers are the prover­bial sixth Bea­tle – they don’t get as much credit as pro­duc­ers have over the years, but they’re a cru­cial com­po­nent of the son­ics of ev­ery record. Harper’s en­gi­neer is Ethan Allen. He was Daniel Lanois’ en­gi­neer at Kingsway stu­dio in New Or­leans for a long time, and his re­sume in­cludes ei­ther pro­duc­tion, en­gi­neer­ing, mix­ing or in­stru­men­tal per­for­mances for ev­ery­one from Black Rebel Mo­tor­cy­cle Club to The Cult, Brant Bjork, Tim Finn and Mid­night Oil.

Ask Harper for a run­down of the gui­tars on the al­bum, and you’re in for quite a list. “I’ll give you a quick run­down,” He says. “On ‘Bad Habits’, I’m bor­row­ing Jack­son Browne’s old Stella. It has a piece of leather over the sad­dle which gives it this dull tone. Jack­son has the most in­cred­i­ble sonic re­sources when it comes to the gui­tar. We have a long­stand­ing, ‘You steal my gui­tar, I’ll steal yours’-type re­la­tion­ship.”

Mozursky played ev­ery­thing from Gib­son Les Pauls to Gretsch White Fal­cons and Fender Stra­to­cast­ers, usu­ally run­ning through an old Park amp, a Vox AC30, a Mar­shall combo or any num­ber of Fender Tweeds.

“I think the Fender Tweed Deluxe is one of the great­est amps ever made,” Harper says. “But back to gui­tars: ‘Love And Trust’ is my orig­i­nal Weis­senborn lap slide gui­tar on the left speaker, and you can hear Ja­son on the left on a Strat with a tremolo/re­verb.”

Harper’s gui­tar on “The Bot­tle Wins Again” is his AND THEN I HAD THAT MO­MENT OF GO­ING, “HEY, THAT’S MY DREAM – SO THIS IS F***ING MY SONG.”

sig­na­ture Asher slide gui­tar, based on a 1959 Gib­son Les Paul but blended with the feel and sus­tain of a Weis­senborn lap steel, with Sey­mour Dun­can Cus­tom Shop hum­buck­ers in­spired by the orig­i­nal Gib­son PAF pickup from the ‘50s.

Some songs have no Harper gui­tar pres­ence at all: for in­stance, “Found The One” is all Mozursky on his Gretsch, and “When Love Is Not Enough” is plas­tered with tones from Ja­son’s Strat. On “Movin’ On”, Harper uses an old Gib­son ES-335 for the Chuck Berry-style riff.

“Trust You To Dig My Grave” uses a par­tic­u­lar unique gui­tar, a Fraulini 12-string hand acous­tic hand­made by Todd Cam­bio, a Madi­son, Wis­con­sin luthier who has de­voted his en­tire life to repli­cat­ing gui­tars that were made be­tween the 1920s and 1940s. Harper used a Fraulini repli­cat­ing ev­ery el­e­ment of the Stella played by Lead­belly, right down to the same wood stocks the orig­i­nal factory em­ployed. Cam­bio goes so far as to hand-craft a replica of the unique tail­pieces used at the time, which were de­signed to use wither loop-end or ball-end strings since there was no stan­dard string end at the time those gui­tars were made.

Harper’s am­pli­fiers on the record are a 1950s Fender Deluxe and a Dum­ble Over­drive Spe­cial. We’ve all heard the leg­ends about the dif­fi­culty of ob­tain­ing a Dum­ble amp – ei­ther be­cause the used prices are astro­nom­i­cal, or be­cause if you want to buy one new, you have to “prove your­self” to mys­te­ri­ous en­gi­neer Howard Dum­ble. It’s not so much that you have to ‘au­di­tion’ for Howard, though.

“It helps if he digs your mu­sic, your sound and your cul­ture,” Harper says. “That makes things move along re­ally nicely. As a mat­ter of fact, I think he’s only work­ing with peo­ple whose mu­sic he re­ally digs, be­cause half of it is that you just hang out, tell sto­ries, drink cof­fee and play in his

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