Sunday, 1 April 2018
REVIEW: BEN HARPER & CHARLIE MUSSELWHITE-NO MERCY IN THIS LAND
Land Of Hope & Blues.
Credit late blues great John Lee Hooker for this perfect pairing. Hooker woke up one morning and decided that blues icon Charlie Musselwhite and multiple bandsman Ben Harper needed to cut an album together. So he made the necessary introductions and the rest my friends is beautiful blues history like John Lee's own legendary legacy. Now after the Grammy winning 'Get Up' album (and stellar standouts like the last waltz of 'We Can't End This Way' and the cowboy fedora of 'I Ride At Dawn'), it's time to get down on the dynamo duos new album 'No Mercy In This Land', for a world that needs that sort of peace right now. And what better than the spirit of the blues? That are as soothing to yearning or roadside wandering hearts like a tended whiskey slid over the bar and placed on top of a cocktail napkin at the end of a long and winding day. And in the catalogue of all the collaborations the epic, eclectic Harper has constantly created and curated (from his Fistful Of Mercy supergroup, to the gospel of the Blind Boys of Alabama or even his own mother Ellen for 'My Childhood Home'), between reuniting with the Innocent Criminals for 2016's 'Call It Like It Is' and the rumor of getting the Relentless7 band back together for the next go round, no one has quite left as indelible mark on Harper than the legendary blues muscle of Musselwhite. Charlie kisses the harmonica like the great love of his life. Whilst Ben meticulously and tenderly cradles his trademark slide guitar like a craftsman working a lathe. And together in soul they hone this music with all their heart, giving new color to the blues.
Looks like these two actually are looking twice with their second album. And after the traditional blues of 'When I Go' sets everything off like stomping feet, 'Bad Habits' shows the ever lyrical Harper writing more classic couplets that rhyme with the reasons the blues were born. "When a man gives you his hat/He's living on borrowed time/The shoe fit so I wore it/But I left one lace untied" the man who once told us "you have to live my life to get boots like these" warns as he sings and brings wisdom to what otherwise would be a life cliche. These creations continue on the blood and bone of 'Love and Trust'. That as Harper plays the slide like a harp with Musselwhite in harmonica harmony gives us gospel, writing, "Like a horse in a race/That doesn't want to run/An executioner who won't fire his gun/Like a boxer who won't take a swing/Like a prince/Who don't want to be a king/Haven't we suffered/Suffered enough/Now we're out here fighting/About some love and trust". As the man influenced by Marvin, Martin and all sorts of kings like B.B. refuses to muddy the waters of what's really going on. But the maverick man of modern music with more meaning doesn't just point fingers without turning them inward as he takes a few shots, some subliminal and some just straight on 'The Bottle Wins Again', yearning, "Broken hearts and broken dreams/Turns out they weigh the same/Passed down through generations/Like the family name/There's a gilded coat of arms/For those who heal from within/But tonight the bottle wins again". Then the beautiful ballad 'Found The One' really haunts the heart like the first dance of matrimony. Before it ends up being the last one too as the brooding returns to shoulder the pain of loss. This is the blues after all.
"Everybody says I love you/But not everybody lives I love you". "I could've held you more carefully/And I suppose you could've been there for me". "Choosing not to remember/Is no way to forget/That's just a losing bet". "These old streets of shame/Will they ever look the same/Will they remember our name"Just ask the dust". On arguably the most lyrical of all the laments on this disc for the record, Harper tells us a tale of 'When Love Is Not Enough' just mere seconds after 'Found A One' fades out. He pulls no punches after he's gut checked with a black eye from the blues. Back at the bar with a cup of blues poured to the brim the innocent criminal who once warned us "not to stand insincere at the side of my grave", brings those contrasting couplets back to the barstools bedside manner as he slams the shovel in. "Spend your whole life with one woman/Die and leave her your farm/The very next day she's on your best friend's arm/There ain't no worries/You can't drink away". Clicking with the spurs of those wild ones that still live in the old west the man who has now made the fedora his trademark is as rhinestone as the slicked back shirts of Musselwhite. And the pair play it again like Sam for the 'No Mercy In This Land' title-track as Musslewhite mourns, "Father left us down here all alone/My poor mother is under a stone/With an aching heart and trembling hands/Is there no mercy in this land". With a vivid vocal from behind the harmonica that aches and trembles with leather worn, brutual beauty of the very words he sings. All from a man who has been through it all and will tell us more than we will ever likely see. Harper gets clever for those who "learned to hustle, but never learned to dance" on 'Movin' On' as he rolls, "Won me in a poker game/Lost me in a bet/Then you got the nerve/To turn around and get upset". Before the beautiful blemishes of the slow-burn closer 'Nothing At All' really brings those bitter and sweet life lessons, that hauntingly and heartbreakingly never leave you like an inner scar only you can see. "This world's too hard to not have someone break my fall/We climb this world stone by stone/We love each other bone by bone/There are sins for which one just cannot atone/There's a price we pay/For the places we lay", Harper sings over strained strings and the man playing behind him in black that will always have his back 'till the bones. 'Get Up' got a Grammy. There will be the very name of this album if 'Land' doesn't at least lay the groundwork for another one. Whether an award or album for this trilogies conclusion. Lord have mercy. TIM DAVID HARVEY.