TVD Live: Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite at the 9:30 Club, 5/02

Iconic bluesman Charlie Musselwhite has been belting out the blues on his harmonica since the 1960s. He has played the blues with the best of them, but in a guest appearance on a John Lee Hooker album in 1997, he met Ben Harper. It may have taken 16 years to finally get these two together to do an album (2013’s Get Up!), but last Thursday at the 9:30 Club, they proved that the wait was worth it.

There would be no opener this evening. Billed as “An Evening of the Blues featuring Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite,” this was sure to be an interesting evening. As the nine o’clock hour neared, the lights went down, and Ben, Charlie, and the band took the stage. Without any banter or fanfare, the two took seats front and center and instantly charged into “I Don’t Believe a Word You Say.”

The pair was two different sides of the same coin. Ben, playing the lap slide guitar, wore on his face a mask of serious passion.  Charlie, on the other hand, had a twinkle in his eye as he wailed on his harmonica, and every time it came away from his mouth, a big smile was left in its place.

The band continued through songs from Get Up!, including “Get Up!” and “Don’t Look Twice,” mixing in Charlie’s original songs, such as “The Blues Overtook Me” and “I’m Goin’ Home.” Throughout these songs, Charlie and his harp were much more than just a man playing an instrument. The intricate sounds of his harmonica were deftly woven through the fabric of the music, not just blaring on top of it.

The band provided the perfect mix to the music, creating a heavy electric blues sound that would have had Jimi Hendrix tapping his foot in heaven. Before going into “When It’s Good,” Ben introduced the band, to the appreciation of the audience. After the band intros, he calmly announced, “My name is Ben Harper,” which was followed by the whole crowd cheering. Finally, he simply announced “Mr. Charlie Musselwhite,” and the house roared with appreciation for the bluesman. I had been curious how much of the crowd was there just for Ben Harper versus how many would truly appreciate the chance to see a blues legend in an intimate setting such as this. I was happy that the ovation given to Mr. Musselwhite disproved my initial misgivings.

The crowd continued to enjoy the evening, smiling, bopping around, and dancing to songs like “Blood Side Out,” “She Got Kick,” and “I Ride at Dawn.” In the last song before the encore, an all-too-familiar heavy drum beat began, and the band broke into a stunningly powerful version of the Led Zeppelin/Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe McCoy classic “When the Levee Breaks.”

After a brief break, the band returned to the stage and went into the hand-clapping “We Can’t End This Way.” At times, Ben would step away from his mic and raise his voice in a natural booming volume from the stage.  As they went into “Long Legged Woman,” another Musselwhite original, you could close your eyes and almost imagine yourself in some smoky little dive down South as they jammed their way into blues bliss.  The set came to an end with the understated and beautiful “All That Matters Now.” The band came forward, and all members locked arm-in-arm and took a bow, ending a very unique and special evening of heavy blues.

Photos: Richie Downs

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