BWW Review: AN EVENING WITH BEN HARPER AND CHARLIE MUSSELWHITE: NO MERCY IN THIS LAND TOUR at Thebarton TheatreReviewed by Ray Smith, Saturday 14th July 2018.

The Thebarton Theatre auditorium was all but empty at 8.15pm on Saturday night, although the doors had been open for 45 minutes. The theatre's three bars were very busy, though, as the guitar technician checked tunings and positioned stands on the stage. At 8.25, people hurriedly tried to find their seats while clutching a plastic cup in each hand, threatening to anoint the seated audience members that they were squeezing past with overpriced alcohol. It was another Saturday night at the Thebarton Theatre.

Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite took to the stage a little after 8.30, to a tumultuous roar of greeting. Accompanying them were another three very fine musicians. Jason Mozersky handled the electric guitar duties and kept his technician busy by changing instruments for every song. I lost track of the number of guitars that he used in the performance, somewhere around seven or eight, but there were some impressive and rare instruments in his collection. Jesse Ingalls played bass, favouring his Gibson Thunderbird over his Fender for most of the show, before quietly moving over to the piano to demonstrate some impressive chops. He was in lock step with the drums at all times and effortlessly flew around the neck, playing some less than conventional licks and riffs. Jimmy Paxson sat at the drum kit and drove the faster and more 'rocky' songs tastefully, but relentlessly, demonstrating that, in this outfit, the engine is in the back. His playing was utterly delicious as he subtly shifted the rhythms around, and dropped back to mallets and gentle cymbal accents.

The performance started with a haunting lap steel introduction from Harper before the band kicked in behind him and it was instantly obvious just how good these guys are and that we were in for a real treat. Musselwhite's harmonica soared and wailed in beautiful contrast to his grainy voice as he informed us that, "women and whiskey drive a poor boy wild" and quietly added the afterthought, "I ain't complaining."

'Memphis Charlie' is the real thing. An authentic bluesman who's played with them all from the Chicago blues scene in the 1960s. He is adored by his fans and is a true living treasure. His harmonica is a time machine that flicks us back to Sun Records in 1965, reminding us of Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf, before spinning us into the present as he tears the blues form apart, constantly pushing the envelope with new ideas and flavours.

He's played with some of the blues greats, but he's also worked with Cyndi Lauper, INXS, Mick Jagger, Kodo Drummers of Japan, Tom Waits, Blind Boys of Alabama, and even Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam). Blues, Soul, Gospel, Rock, Pop, he's played them all, and to each genre, he brings his unique approach to the harmonica that makes him such a sought-after collaborator. He and Ben Harper played at the White House for President Obama and the First Lady, in a salute to Memphis soul. Shortly after that memorable gig, the duo won the Grammy for Best Blues Album for their collaboration, Get Up!

Ben Harper started the song Love and Trust at a slower pace than the recording of the song on the No Mercy in This Land album, in an emotive solo rendition that squeezed every ounce of doubt and uncertainty from the anguished lyrics before the band locked in behind him. The wide dynamic demonstrated in this song was a foretaste of what was to come during the set. Simple, hypnotic riffs from the lap steel and the bass, supported by sparse but mathematically accurate percussion, left room for Musselwhite and Mozersky to solo. Musselwhite lowered his harmonica and pointed across the stage at the guitarist, inviting him to take the lead, and take it he did. The man can play.

"Give a man a hundred years
And he'll want a hundred more
Give him a hundred choices
And he still chooses war"

Harper informed us, as Mozersky went back to his understated, perfectly phrased support role.

Ben Harper dedicated a song to his President and Commander in Chief, Donald Trump,
I Don't Believe a Word You Say, much to the delight of the audience.

"I see your mouth moving
But there's a circus coming out"

During the song I'm in I'm out and I'm Gone, Harper was able to achieve something that very few contemporary songwriters can do, particularly with an audience with such a wide demographic as the one he was performing to. He made them join in, and enthusiastically at that.

"careful talking to yourself cause you just may be listening"

His easy and comfortable style on stage put the audience at such ease that they just took his lead and sang along.

Harper took to the piano for a mournful ballad, Nothing At All, and the band all but took him at his word. The restraint of the accompaniment was palpable, each player holding back to tiny, almost apologetic notes of punctuation as the lyric took precedence over everything else. Harper's voice gentle and sad, reaching into his upper range as he quietly but mercilessly ripped our hearts out.
When the solo came from Musselwhite, his harmonica wept, and we wept with it. A superbly crafted song, faultlessly delivered.

The stage cleared, leaving only the two collaborators, Harper and Musselwhite, sitting alone amongst the abandoned instruments and amplifiers for a love song with the very strange title, I Trust You to Dig My Grave. Harper, armed with a battered, acoustic 12 string guitar, launched into a familiar mid-tempo blues feel and sang the quirky lyric. When the solo came, Musselwhite's harmonica bellowed and wailed to the resounding stomp of his own foot and a single pulse from the low strings of the guitar. Two men on the stage and the auditorium was filled to overflowing with sound.

The band returned and the extraordinary show continued, and a couple of things were very evident. This was an extremely well rehearsed and tight band of exceptional players and they had massive respect for each other.

When Jimmy Paxson took a drum solo, Harper and Mozersky moved hard stage right to watch him, and Musselwhite and Ingalls did the same thing stage left. The only player in the light was the drummer, as he gave a master class in shifting rhythms and carefully controlled dynamics, watched deferentially from the shadows by his colleagues. When the quite long solo ended and he slid beautifully back into the song's beat, the other players quietly resumed their positions, to the audience's delighted applause, and took up the song again.

The show ended with five encores, the last song being a ballad. It is most unusual to end such a powerful gig on a slow sad song like All That Matters Now, but then this is a most unusual outfit. Harper is able to make such a connection with his audience that they will follow him anywhere, and when he ended this brilliant concert by singing the last verses of the song at the front of the stage, off mic, we knew we had witnessed something rare and precious. I have already ordered the album.

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From This Author Barry Lenny

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