Fire Note Says: The warm humanity of the songs on No Mercy In This Land with the melding of emotion and technique in the two performers solos leaves a satisfying feeling.
Album Review: The last time bluesman Charlie Musselwhite and jam band favorite, guitarist, and singer/songwriter Ben Harper made an album together they took home the Grammy for Best Blues Album. Their 2013 release, Get Up! (Stax), and subsequent tour forged a bond of friendship between the two that had met when playing on a recording by John Lee Hooker, and their reunion on No Mercy In This Land exhibits the natural musical chemistry that comes from mutual respect and a shared vision.
Much like their previous work, Harper has written all the songs, occasionally collaborating with bassist Jesse Ingalls, producer Jason Mozersky, and drummer Jimmy Paxson. The opening track, “When I Go” starts with bluesy gospel hummed vocals reminiscent of Harper’s 2004 collaboration with The Blind Boys of Alabama, There Will Be a Light, but shortly we hear Harper’s rocking electric and Musselwhite’s lush bluesy harmonica playing, as the duo dip their feet in traditional blues music’s deep end of the pool.
Of course a level of fatalism dominates most songwriting in the blues genre, but Harper manages to squeeze in a few love songs in the bounce beat call & response gospel of “Found the One” and “Love and Trust,” and the end-of-the-night slow blues of “When Love Is Not Enough.” While the more immediately pleasing tracks lean toward the bold, rockin’ blues of “The Bottle Wins Again,” which finds both artists playing at full throttle, it’s the more emotionally vulnerable tracks, like the title song and “Trust You to Dig My Grave,” where Harper is playing an acoustic, and Musselwhite is breathing pure emotion through his harmonicas that give these songs staying power.
There’s a transcendent quality in the instrumental interplay that comes from the natural ease these veteran players find in each other’s company that is communicated through the way the music moves so naturally. It’s especially pleasant when the 74-year-old mouth harpist contributes vocals in a duet with Harper who’s over two and half decades younger. But finally it’s the warm humanity of the songs, the melding of emotion and technique in the two performers solos that leaves such a satisfying feeling with the listener.
Key Tracks: “The Bottle Wins Again” / “Love and Trust” / “Trust You to Dig My Grave”
Artists With Similar Fire: Buddy Guy / Blues Traveler / Big Head Todd & The Monsters
Ben Harper Website
Charlie Musselwhite Website
Ben Harper Facebook
– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb