The particulars of the first time that Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite played music together are almost too perfect. During a session for John Lee Hooker, Harper played guitar and Musselwhite played harmonica on a song called “Burnin’ Hell,” which appeared on Hooker’s “Best of Friends” album.
By playing with a blues legend like Hooker, their integrity was solidified, by playing a song with a title like “Burnin’ Hell,” their badassness was solidified, and by playing on an album with a title like “Best of Friends,” well, you get the picture.
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“That’s when we first worked together and we really just locked in,” recalls Musselwhite. “Even John Lee was saying, ‘Man, you guys sound so good together, you ought to do more.’ And we knew it too.”
The two musicians guested on each other’s albums over the years, but it wasn’t until this year’s “Get Up!” album were they able to fully ignite the creative spark that began in the late 1990s.
“We’re both so busy, but we’ve both been wanting to get in the studio together for so long,” says Musselwhite. “Ben did one tune on an album of mine, and I did two or three on an album of his once, but we never had time to actually do a whole album together.”
And when they did finally get into the studio to do that whole album, it was exactly what John Lee Hooker had ordained it to be.
“We finally found the time and it was like the music was just waiting to happen. It just came pouring out of us. It was real spontaneous and it happened real fast,” recalls Musselwhite. “It was like it was already ready, just waiting for us to show up.”
“Get Up!” is a collection of 10 blues songs that feels so classic that it’s not immediately clear that these are all brand new recordings. “No overdubs except for the girls’ voices,” Musselwhite shares eagerly.
Musselwhite wails on the harmonica and Harper lyrically delivers hard old truths in new ways, with lines like “Don’t tell me I can’t break the law, because the law broke me.” There are more than 25 years between the two musicians — Musselwhite is 69 and Harper is 43 — but the elder musician says Harper has an old soul.
“He’s got some mud on his shoes,” Musselwhite chuckles about Harper.
When we point out to Musselwhite that there's a harmonica riff on the song, "I Don't Believe a Word You Say" that is reminiscent of the Led Zeppelin version of "When the Levee Breaks," he seems surprised that we'd mention that song.
"We do that tune," he exclaims about his and Harper's setlist, "and to tell you the truth, I didn’t know that tune until we started doing it. I knew the Memphis Minnie version, but not the Led Zeppelin version."