Ben Harper has been hiding in plain sight for nearly 20 years, delivering handsome hybrid folk blues – sometimes politicized, sometimes heartbroken – in his signature high-tenor whisper, while playing slide guitar with flashes of Hendrixian fire. His version of Americana has often resonated more loudly abroad. But as the Black Keys, Gary Clark Jr.
Does Ben Harper ever get tired? He’s like a hippie Elvis Costello, with all the projects and collaborations he takes on. The songwriter first leapt to prominence by himself with 1994’s Welcome to the Cruel World before bringing along the Innocent Criminals for the subsequent releases that would paint the earliest parts of his career. After that, he called up the Blind Boys of Alabama to work on 2004’s There Will Be Light.
This musical hookup between these two experienced roots artists who have more in common than it seems at first glance, is a natural evolution for both. Ben Harper seemed like an old soul, even when he began his career, dipping into classic R&B, gospel, and blues but spinning them through his dark, folk-funk persona. His work with the Blind Boys of Alabama showed him to be welcomed by veteran artists who clearly felt he was a kindred spirit.
Inter-generational summit sets the standard for 21st century blues. Ninian Dunnett 2013 If a case needs to be made for blues music in the mainstream – and really, given the story of Adele, it shouldn’t – this meeting of crack talents from two generations fits the brief. Ben Harper has been exploring the rootsy end of the pop spectrum for more than 20 years without ever identifying himself with a genre.
Some blues fans worried that this merging of a younger star (Ben Harper) and an aging bluesman (Charlie Musselwhite) might result in just another novelty project. But not so. An inherent nobility runs throughout this noncommercial but inspired music. The album is a beguiling mix of acoustic and electric blues, with harmonica legend Musselwhite weaving in and out like a roadhouse virtuoso.