An Evening Of The Blues Feat Ben Harper Plus Charlie Musselwhite, Shepherd’s Bush Empire, 16 July 2013
Some kind of venue, Shepherd’s Bush and the lights go down. This is no rock n’ rolling blackout, but I like it. The Empire strikes back on a Tuesday.
Sideshow Bob’s seedy uncle takes the stage to bang the drum. They begin with the bassline and feel of Who Knows by the Band of Gypsies. A savage child of Chicago blues, this. Ben Harper on vocals with an old harmonica legend name of Charlie Musselwhite. Bobby D gulps at his beer without spilling a drop – this old man’s a pro. The girls in front of us take pictures of the band.
Charlie sings with a classic bluesman’s roar, a guttural take on the Howlin’ Wolf school. Harper exchanges his Telecaster for a square-neck resonator, played like a lap steel with a slide. The other guitarist plays Stratocaster solos that drown out the sound of the harmonica break. He’s not really much cop, this guy. Got no chops, this guy.
I could do what he does and with more balls, and if I could do it, it ain’t all that. The girls in front log in, one on Facebook the other on Twitter. No experience is authentic unless it’s shared online with strangers. Welcome to the gestalt groupthink.
Getting down with the minors and the sevenths. Charlie lets off a howl – the sound of coming back swinging with everything you’ve got (even if it isn’t much). I feel the kick of the drum and the thrum of the bass in my ribcage. Bobby D hands me another beer – first one nailed in seconds flat. Don’t look twice, ‘cause I’m in, and I’m out, and I’m gone.
The stomp and the shuffle continues, subsides. Harper’s crazy talented, why have I never paid him much heed? The next one’s a little bit country. Maybe that’s why. The girls log in to email and Instagram, eyes never leaving the comfort of tiny screens.
This heat makes men crazy, makes me want to shed my skin. The atmosphere grows ever more fetid, beer down my back spells welcome relief.
Later on Bobby D and me will watch a blubbery man in an ill-advised hat argue with the security. One of them pushed him, he says, and that’s illegal; worse: it’s a crime. He’s talking about a common law assault, and yes it is technically a crime albeit only in the minds of law students and whiners.
We’ll try and talk him down but there’s nothing doing when someone is this angry and middle class.
A woman next to us dances more and more exuberantly, trying to draw focus like the guitarist on the stage. She sneaks regular glances in our direction (Bobby D’s a devil mix of Irish and Italian). But we don’t respond – real men don’t dance.
But the less attention you get, the more you seem to crave it. The guitarist changes guitar again between songs – he’s not played the same one twice. Spinal Tap rang: they want their schtick back.
He straps himself into a double neck Gibson, wine red like the one Jimmy Page used to play in the 70s. He plays a decent riff on the twelve string neck, but it’s too chuggy and the tone too distorted to get the benefit of extra strings – it’s all about the look.
Charlie sings again, he sings the blues like a simile in a drain. He’s clearly more of a traditionalist – twelve bars, down with the minors and the sevenths – but this old bird is game. Harper harmonises beautifully and the impassive giant to Bobby D’s right finally cracks a smile, a crack so wide it could swallow the world. He nods his head to the music (somewhere across the globe he’s probably caused a hurricane).
The girls make some videos, but one has to break off to have an email scrap with her boyfriend. It’s a quiet sort of domestic. Guitarist gets his Les Paul back – must be heading towards the finale.
This afternoon I received an email from my bank. Someone tried and failed to log in to my online account 5 times and they need personal details to set me back up. Security reasons. Only thing is I tend to avoid online banking (poor memory for passwords), I don’t bank with Santander and that ain’t no Santander email account.
Snake oil and con art.
Harper and co come back for an encore; we hit the bar for another. A new couple has Brownian motioned to our vicinity. He’s stocky and short with a huge beard. Looks like a bulldog with male pattern baldness. He’s having the time of his life with a tall brunette with whom he’s clearly in love. She pretends not to notice but dances and cackles with him til’ their feet are sore. But real men don’t dance.
Harper coaxes a tune out of a resonator – his style is simple and unhurried. London’s the hardest place to play, harder than New York, he smarms to the crowd. Even us embittered cynics of the seething metropolis love a bit of BS.
Harper wants to get his gospel on. He edges to the end of the stage and bellows out a vocal with no mic. The crowd goes nuts – he gestures impatiently for calm. This is what a voice sounds like, no twiddling across the octaves cramming as many notes as possible until even the cat looks impressed.
You imagine he wants to say something like ‘we don’t need no autotune, we got soul,’ and you’re a little embarrassed on his behalf.
The rhythm section cranks into overdrive. Harper plays a lap steel solo and Charlie plays the gaps, an echoey sort of call and response. Guitarist waits his turn, perhaps I’ve been too hard on him. It’s not easy when the bass takes the accompaniment and the singers take the flash and you’re left exposed like that old lie about how real men don’t dance.
The music leans a little to the south, to the swamp and the delta. It’s hot, it’s sweaty and time was they said it could kill a man. And that’s just the music: in the venue it’s so humid I’ve more liquid on the outside.
It’s too emotional and raw for the technique-cliché – modern blues is too polite, but here we’re all too crushed for manners. It’s got a beat and you can dance, but real men don’t, it has rhythm and it stinks with personality. It is swing and soul and jazz and rock and blues.
But what it mainly is, is old.