FOUND THE ONE
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