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Grit and Soul – Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite

February 27, 2013
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Ben Harper (left) and Charlie Musselwhite.
“I’VE SPENT my whole life immersed in the blues,” Ben Harper says. “It’s taken me my entire life to make this record.” He doesn’t mean that work on his album with blues harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite, Get Up!, was long or laborious; his point is that the blues—maybe more than other genres of music—comes from experience. A blues song doesn’t just say what the artist is feeling; it tells everywhere he’s been.

Harper—a modern champion of American roots music—and Musselwhite, one of his heroes, first met at a blues festival in Australia in 1996, and they bonded over their mutual affection and respect for each other’s talents, and shared reverence for classic recordings by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, and others. Harper grew up admiring those artists; Musselwhite had played with them.

Harper and Musselwhite’s musical connection led to their working together on a John Lee Hooker session in 1997, and again on Solomon Burke’s Grammy-winning comeback Don’t Give Up on Me (2002). Harper then played on Musselwhite’s Sanctuary album (2004), and the harp virtuoso returned the favor, guesting on Harper’s Both Sides Now (2006).

Last year, the pair embarked on their first full-length collaboration, an album of original blues tunes. Though Harper wrote all of the material with this specific blues project in mind, he is loath to call this—or any of his releases—a “concept album.”

“You can call it conceptual, you can call it spontaneity, you can call it improvisation, but boy, you only hope to surpass your own expectations when you’re making art,” Harper says. “You just want to be able to say, ‘I didn’t know I had it in me!’

Harper says that when he writes, “It’s just me and my chaotic mind and an instrument, whether it’s a lap steel, an electric guitar or an acoustic guitar, or a piano. I usually get an idea like a jolt of lightning and I run to an instrument. And if I’m driving, I will hum into my high-tech futuristic device.” His phone, in other words.

When Musselwhite heard the songs Harper had created for them, he was fully onboard. In the trailer for Get Up!, the elder statesman says, “I just love all the tunes. They all have a story and reflections of life. It’s more than just music.”

The various arrangements—from high-test numbers with electric guitars and wailing harp to delicate acoustic Delta-inspired performances—showcase all of the artists’ command of blues styles. “There’s blues from every decade,” says Harper. “There’s blues out of Florida, Texas, Memphis, Mississippi— acoustic blues, electric blues. These songs that I wrote, the way they sounded to me when they were just stripped down songs— one person, one voice, one guitar—quickly showed me where their strong points would be production-wise.”

Harper’s bandmembers (guitarist Jason Mozersky, bassist Jesse Ingalls, drummer Jordan Richardson) plus Sheldon Gomberg— the engineer/producer/bass player who recorded the sessions—are all credited with co-producing Get Up! with Harper, a testament to the artist’s openness in the studio.

“The guys in the band are all Texans and have all grown up with that southern Texas passion for blues and soul. They live, eat, breathe, and sleep it, and have since they were kids. And Sheldon: He’s an amazing bass player—upright and electric [Gomberg’s recent credits include projects with Rickie Lee Jones, Steve Forbert and Harper’s side project Fistful of Mercy]—so he brings a melodic, musical sensibility to the recording process that’s crucial to bringing out the best in the instruments. My attitude is, I produce from the best idea in the room,” Harper says. “That’s my production strategy.”

Working in The Carriage House (L.A.), and recording to Pro Tools HD via the studio’s Quad Eight Coronado console, Harper, Gomberg, and the band put in one day of tracking before Musselwhite arrived for the official start of the sessions. Musselwhite, in a booth with the door open, first played a little catch-up—overdubbing his parts for the music that had been tracked the day before. He brought along his own Sonny Jr. Super Cruncher amp; his signal went through that plus the studio’s Gibson Skylark. “They were both going all the time, side by side, and they were mixed together, weighted toward the Skylark,” Gomberg says. “Charlie actually had me help him find one of those amps for himself after the sessions.”

Gomberg miked those up with Shure SM57s, but he notes that on one song, the Stax-via-New Orleans-flavored track “She Got Kick,” Musselwhite played into an RCA 44 ribbon mic. Start to finish, Musselwhite’s playing on the album is so inspired; he always knows when to blow the doors off and when to hold back. Harper refers to his collaborator as the “life force” of the project, “that connection to roots that are that deep. Charlie has a church choir and a Hammond B3 and Roy Orbison all wrapped in one small rectangular piece of metal. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever heard.”

In general, most of the bandmembers played together in The Carriage House’s 18x18-foot main recording room. Harper describes the setup as “shoulder to shoulder,” which actually fit well with Harper’s interest in sonic authenticity. A student of the classic Chess records, among other things, he knows that those sides didn’t get cut piece by piece, or with much isolation or close miking on instruments, or even on vocals.

“I always wondered, why do all those blues records sound so freaking different,” Harper says. “And I realized, one characteristic that was a big contribution was being off the mic; bringing in the room sound. They have this haunted, haunting off-mic sound. Not like the way pop singers that came later will put lips to microphone. So I made sure I brought that to the table. I would sing, I’d say, a good three to five feet off the mic.”

The vocal mics that Gomberg put up were mainly an RCA 77 (thru a UREI LA3A) plus an even more distant mic, an AKG C12 (through an LA2A). However, on a few tracks, the engineer employed a Sony C37a or a Shure SM7. One such exception is the song “You Found Another Lover,” which was spontaneously cut in the control room. “It was just Ben and Charlie in there, and it was just grab a mic and set it up, and that was a live thing sitting right next to me,” Gomberg recalls. “In that situation, a Neumann SM2 acted as a stereo room mic, and we put up the Sony C37a there for vocals.” Harper’s acoustic guitar was miked with a Neumann KM84.

However, as with Harper’s approach to lead vocals, Gomberg notes that all of the tracks developed as much from bleed and room sound as they did from individualized miking schemes.

“The sound of everything starts with the musicians,” Gomberg says. “Plus it’s a good-sounding room, and I don’t think you have to close-mike everything. The main setup in the room was really just three mics: a pair of AKG C12s through Neve 2254 compressors, and a mono [RCA] 44 in the center through a Federal compressor. I put mics on the amps and four mics on the drums, but that was more for reinforcement, and if I needed to bring something out. The majoritry of the sound is from those room mics. Everybody’s playing together in the room and nobody’s isolated. Everybody’s bleeding into each other, exactly the way music should be.”

Those four main drum mics, incidentally, were a Neumann 47 FET on kick through a dbx 160, a Shure SM57 through an Empirical Labs Distressor on snare, an RCA 77 overhead, and, “my ‘trash mic,’ which is an American D22 through an Altec 436,” Gomberg says. “I use it to pick up the overall drums and I compress the hell out of it. That’s mixed into everything; it acts as glue.”

Gomberg would switch various pieces out, however, if he needed to highlight a specific drum sound. On the song “I Ride at Dawn,” which has a very subtle, distant drum part that follows the acoustic guitar line, Gomberg says, “I miked the kick with a 44 at quite a distance, partly because I wouldn’t put a ribbon right on a kick drum, but I also wanted a very old-school thing there. And for snare, I used a Coles 4038 at a little distance, plus the trash mic.”

Between The Carriage House’s impressive collection of classic gear and the musicians’ prized vintage instruments, Harper and band had little trouble keeping the authentic feel they were after. “We tried to stick to instruments older than ’69,” Harper says. “Old lap steels, Rickenbackers, Nationals, Weissenborns, old Fender amps. And the studio has a nice wall of instruments, If I wanted to bring out something different, I could pull a guitar off of the wall.”

Gomberg usually captured Mozersky and Harper’s electric guitars through Sennheiser MD409s, and acoustics through an Altec 635A through a Neve 1073. “On lap steel, I used a little Gibson amp with a Sony C37a on it,” Gomberg says. “That Gibson has a great little distortion sound when you drive it, and the C37a is a great mic. I had it ready for any extras that came up—it was my floater.”

On this type of session, it was obviously essential to be ready for those spontaneous moments. Harper came in with well-developed material, and strong ideas about arrangements, but there was loads of give and take in the studio. “When you’re making a record like this, you don’t tell people what to play and what not to play,” Harper says. “You want people to kind of produce themselves in a regard—the less orchestrating the better. You want guys where you can almost read their mind and know they’re right there with you and for you. The minute you have to tell somebody how to play the blues, you ain’t playing the blues.

“I wouldn’t have made a blues record if it weren’t for Charlie, though,” Harper continues. “I needed that life force. Just like when I made a gospel record, There Will Be a Light, I had that life force with the Blind Boys of Alabama. That’s why I say it’s taken me all my life, not only to earn a place at the table with Charlie, but to earn the depth of these songs that would inspire Charlie.”

Barbara Schultz is a regular contributor to Electronic Musician and its sister publication Mix.

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