Ranging and roaring from Louisiana gutbucket blues to Led Zeppelin rock 'n' stomp, Get Up!, a new collaboration between Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite, is, right now, the best album of 2013. Sure, there's a plenty of year left, but that'll have to be one heck of a record that tops this.
Harper — an African-American Jewish Cherokee — is a 43-year-old soul rocker, a restless Renaissance man who can wail on his trusty axe like Hendrix then howl and sway with the Blind Boys of Alabama, his voice a rough-hewn street preacher's plea. Musselwhite — rumored to be the inspiration for Dan Aykroyd's Elwood in The Blues Brothers — is a 69-year-old electric harmonica whiz, a fluid, inventive prince of the "white bluesmen" movement in the '60s.
Strange bedfellows? No way. L.A. Ben and Mississippi Charlie were absolutely made for each other. And as if this 10-track masterpiece couldn't get any cooler, Get Up! was released on a revived version of the classic Stax Records label, the famed Memphis music factory that gave the world Otis Redding, Booker T. & the MGs and Isaac Hayes.
Harper has a writing hand in every dusty, leathery track, which alternate from low-and-slow to head-nod grooving to Jurassic-sized first "single" I Don't Believe a Word You Say, which still blows my hair back after 20 listens. On that incendiary cut ("I see your mouth moving / But there's a circus coming out"), Harper takes lead vocal and lead slide guitar — his greasy licks vicious and accusatory — while an amped-up Musselwhite chews on that harmonica as if he's hopping and bopping up Misty Mountain. It's a TREMENDOUS song. Cue that sucker up as soon as you can.
For all the bonding and bromancing going on between the album's two stars, Get Up! is largely about the divides we live with in the 21st century: prosperity and despair, love and apathy, peace and war. On the communal bonfire hug of We Can't End This Way, Harper and Musselwhite (his notes burbling with hope here) urge uplift and understanding as they watch a city street corner bustling with rich and poor. The mood is grimmer on I Ride at Dawn, about a fourth-generation soldier heading into a battle he knows will take his life. Harper doesn't judge; he dedicates the song to a Navy SEAL. "I was born for battle / I was born to bleed."
Bluesmen being bluesmen, Harper and Musselwhite can't totally resist serenading the fairer sex, so they close things out with disparate love letters. Borrowing the drunken roll of Wooly Bully, the song She Got Kick is a rambunctiously fun throwaway: "And when she gets to kicking/ You had better duck / Cause if her kicking catches you / You'll be stone outta luck."
Recorded live in a noisy, rackety studio, album closer All That Matters Now is an epic, end-credits blues gem, hungover and cinematic, with Musselwhite playing slow and Harper searching for a silver lining: "It's been a hard life / But we're together / And that's all that matters now." If such a rambunctious record ends too somberly for you, don't fret: You'll be spinning this one again, and again, soon enough.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.