Ben Harper, 43, is no spring chicken, but he’s a relative youngster in the world of the blues.
That may be why the California native has been drawn to performing with older originators, including John Lee Hooker, Solomon Burke and the Blind Boys of Alabama.
In his latest collaboration, Harper teams up with harmonica giant Charlie Musselwhite, 69, recording “Get Up!” an album’s worth of stripped-down tunes, ranging from Chicago-style to country to gospel. The two mesh nicely and the record demonstrates the timeless quality of this roots music that so easily knits together musicians from two different generations.
Harper and Musselwhite will perform Sept. 13 at The Tabernacle. The stop is part of a tour that has taken the two into some pretty select company, including a performance for President Barack Obama during a White House tribute to the music of Memphis.
Among the musicians sharing that D.C. stage was Steve Cropper, whose stinging guitar was a deep part of the Stax sound, and who co-wrote and recorded “Dock of the Bay” with Otis Redding, days before the soul singer was killed in a plane crash. Cropper wanted to make sure Harper recognized Musselwhite’s genius.
“Steve all but jammed me up against the wall,” said Harper, “and said, ‘You know you got a special man you’re working with? You know how special he is?’ And I said, ‘Yes sir, I know, yes sir.’”
Musselwhite shrugs off the label of “torch bearer” with the easy-going response: “I think of it more as equals. I learn from him too. It’s not like I’m the guy that knows everything. We’re on the path.”
“Get Up!” swings from a Muddy Waters-esque workout “I’m In I’m Out And I’m Gone” to the Led Zeppelin stomp of “I Don’t Believe A Word You Say” to the homely acoustic “You Found Another Lover (I Lost Another Friend).” Harper’s spare slide guitar is complemented by Musselwhite’s harp, which, except on the acoustic numbers, cuts through the mix like an electric knife.
Harper’s grandparents ran a noted record store and performance venue, the Folk Music Center, in Claremont, Calif., and Harper was brought up amid the crosscurrents of blues, folk and traditional music.
“I told Ben that he found a new way of playing traditional,” said Musselwhite. “It has the logic and feeling of traditional, but like sparkling, brand-new.”
Harper doesn’t make much of his mixed-race background (African-American, Cherokee, Lithuanian Jew), nor of the fact that he and Musselwhite both have some Native American in common.
“I don’t get caught up so much in the genetics of the blues,” he said. “If it’s in you, it’s gotta come out. That’s the only thing that ever made sense. You can’t trace it. I don’t know how the spirit of sound moves through us all, but clearly it has meaning. It’s been a language that human beings seem to need.”
Musselwhite said he has been surprised at the musicians who trace their beginnings to the blues, including pop songstress Cyndi Lauper, whose “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” sounds pretty far removed from the Mississippi mud.
He ended up touring with Lauper behind a blues album of hers, which she released against the advice of her handlers.
“She wanted to do the blues,” said Musselwhite, “and her manager said, ‘You’re going to confuse your audience.’ Man, I had so much fun with her.”
Said Musselwhite, the blues is “a thing of the heart. You want more of it, you need it, like food for the heart. There may be other reasons to play it, but that’s a good one.”
Born in Mississippi, Musselwhite sojourned through Memphis and Chicago before relocating to San Francisco in 1967. His timing was good. There he joined a musical flowering that embraced old and new. “Underground radio stations were playing everything. Even me!”
He said, “The whole hippie movement, they were open to everything and they gave me a whole career.” Playing ballrooms and festivals up and down the West Coast was a “big step up from a little bar on the south side of Chicago.”
Musselwhite sees a similar receptiveness in the audiences that come to hear him and Harper.
“I like to see younger people coming along and wanting to learn the blues,” he said. “I don’t know if they’re getting younger and younger or I’m just getting older and older. When I started out, there was hardly anybody my age listening to the blues. It was adult music. … Now I see a lot of young kids, teenagers, even younger than teenagers, asking questions. They want to know the history. They’re fascinated with this.”
Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite, backed by the Innocent Criminals, 8:30 p.m., Friday, Sept. 13, $45, at the Tabernacle, 152 Luckie Street, Atlanta, 404-659-9022, The Tabernacle