Wednesday, September 11, 2013
Concert review: Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite team up in dramatic Dallas show
The show snaked through swampy Delta sounds, Chicago-style boogie, and thundering blues-rockers like Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks.”
We’re told the blues, as an art form, is dying. But don’t believe it. As Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite showed in a thrilling set Tuesday night, blues artists know how to pass the torch better than athletes at an Olympics ceremony.
Musselwhite, 69, has become an unlikely elder statesman of the genre. In the 1960s, he was just another white hippie in Chicago wearing out the grooves of his Muddy Waters LPs until Muddy and other blues masters took him under their wings and helped launch his career. Harper, 43, grew up in Southern California, a multi-racial kid befriended by blues legend Taj Mahal, who helped get him a record deal in the early ‘90s.
Playing to an adoring capacity crowd at the Granada Theater, the two bluesmen ignored the age-gap and just let their knowledge mesh and flow. They got off to a rocky start trying to improvise the title track to their new duet CD, Get Up!. But they soon found traction and never let up in a show that snaked through swampy Delta sounds, Chicago-style boogie and thundering blues-rockers like Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks.”
“Levee” proved to be especially fertile ground for Harper, who plays slide guitar with the ease of Jimmy Page and moans like a less histrionic Robert Plant. Musselwhite sounded right at home, too, as well he should: In the mid-‘60s, he learned harmonica at the feet of the late Little Walter, the very inspiration for Plant’s harmonica solos on “Levee.”
Harper’s virtuosic guitar shredding served as a sharp contrast to Musselwhite’s slow-and-eerie harmonica playing and mellow singing. Yet some of the show’s brightest points arrived when they both turned down the volume for the shuffling “She Got Kick” (featuring the Orbans’ Justin Pate on keyboards) and two dramatic new Harper-written ballads: The soldier’s tale “I Ride at Dawn” and “All That Matters Now,” a song about love as a shelter from the storm.
“Matters” closed the show in dramatic fashion as Harper wailed soulfully, sans microphone, to a crowd that was so quiet you could hear a bottle-cap drop. He was clearly the marquee attraction for this crowd of 30 and 40-somethings, but his fans respect the blues as much as he does: When it came time for introductions, it was Musselwhite, not Harper, who got the loudest cheer.
Thor Christensen is a Dallas writer and critic.