Blues powerhouses Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite return with a new musical collaboration, No Mercy In This Land. Their first album, 2012’s Get Up!, spurred, at least in my mind at the time, comparisons to other blues and jazz artists such as John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. I now realize that while some comparisons are productive, sometimes artists come together to produce the most amazingly creative offerings. Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite are the perfect example of just that.
“When I Go,” the opening track, sets the mood for what to expect on this new album. The song begins with humming! You know what I mean—1930s/1940s, take-me-to-the-river-and-baptize me-in-blues humming. Then, the mesmerizing strumming of a guitar takes over. “I’ll take you when I go,” replies Harper. Talk about musical blues call and response.
After that moving scene, picture a jukebox in some honky-tonk bar, with patrons who perhaps had one too many, lip synching to the next track, “The Bottle Wins Again.” On “Trust You to Dig My Grave” I can practically hear Muddy Waters weighing in on the action from the Beyond—Harper and Musselwhite really do justice on this one. “Bad Habits” is an up tempo, clap-along jam. Musselwhite and Harper are never quite specific what kind of bad habits they are referring to. You listen. You be the judge of that one.
No Mercy In This Land is excellent work from Harper, and once again, he has found a great compadre in Musselwhite. For this album, and this iconic blues duo, there literally is no comparison.
Title: All Rebel Rockers
Artist: Michael Franti and Spearhead
Label: ANTI/Boo Boo Wax
Catalog No.: ANTI 86906/89-2
Release Date: September 2008
In his sixth studio release, All Rebel Rockers, Michael Franti digs deep into the dub/reggae pocket and pulls out legendary “Riddim Twins” drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare. From the moment the needle drops you can tell that Sly and Robbie produced this project. Franti has collaborated with the Riddim Twins in the past, but this time he “wanted that groove and a toughness to the rhythm” that just simply drips from a full-on Sly and Robbie production. Recorded in Kingston, Jamaica, and in Franti’s home base, San Francisco, this album takes the listener by the seat of the pants and gets your body rocking.
Franti is known for his social political lyrics and, with guitar and microphone in hand, he juggles the identity of singer, songwriter, musician, author, activist, documentarian, and new millennium bard. Born and raised around the Bay area, Franti’s love for music escalated during college at University of San Francisco, when he lived above the college radio station. In 1989, he formed the Beatnigs, an industrial punk band with DJ Rono Tse, and achieved minimal local success. In 1991, Franti continued his collaboration with Tse, forming The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Adding the guitar of Charlie Hunter, The Disposable Heroes broke through with in-your-face lyrics that dealt with social injustice fused to an industrial/hip hop sound. The success of their first album eventually led to an opening spot on the U2 Zoo TV tour and a project with novelist William S. Burroughs entitled Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales.
In 1994 Franti formed Spearhead along with bassist Carl Young. Spearhead moved away from the industrial/hip hop sound to a more soulful funk-oriented style, while retaining the socially conscience ideology. Franti released Homeand Chocolate Supa Highway on the Capitol label before deciding to start his own label, citing differences with Capitol over artistic direction. In 2000, Franti released Stay Human on his label Boo Boo Wax under the name of Michael Franti and Spearhead (necessary because Capitol still owned the rights to the name Spearhead). Stay Human dealt with issues of prison reform, corrupt politicians, corporate globalization, and more poignant issues related to maintaining self respect and dignity. In 2003, Franti released Everyone Deserves Music, which featured songs that he had written in the aftermath of 9/11. This album was both reactionary and therapeutic, with songs that dealt with the shock of 9/11 as well as songs that were written in order to cope with the fear of the changing world.
In 2004 Franti embarked on a documentary project in Iraq, Palestine, and Israel in order to put his “money where his mouth is.” Franti felt if he was going to criticize the U.S. occupation of Iraq that he needed to have firsthand experience. The result of this was the film, I Know I’m Not Alone, in which Franti talked to the culture bearers, the poets, artists, musicians and everyday people, including the soldiers, in order to show the human cost of war. Franti continued to write songs during his trip to the Middle East, which resulted in the 2006 release Yell Fire!. This album had such a distinct reggae feel to it that they were re-classified as a Reggae group. Franti collaborated with Sly and Robbie on this album and it seems only natural that he would continue this relationship on his new album.
All Rebel Rockers features the Spearhead core group: Carl Youngand Dave Shul on guitar, Manas Itene on drums, and Raliegh J. Neal, II on keyboards. Michael is backed by several very special guests including Zap Mama founder Marie Daulne and Jamaican soul/dancehall star Cherine Anderson. The album gets right to the point with the first track “The Rude Boys Back in Town,” a song that requires a decent audio system due to the deep bass and Dub effects that will shake your body to the core. The first half of the album is extremely danceable with themes ranging from social ailment, political injustice, economic woes and lovers’ laments. My personal favorite is the track “Say Hey (I Love You),” a song that is so catchy it will stick with you for days. Following is the promotional video from Anti Records:
The album also features several songs that fuse a heavy rock style with reggae/dub rhythm, which seems reminiscent of Franti’s early work with the Beatnigs. He has been quoted saying that he wants to give the revolution a dance party soundtrack, and he clearly states this on the track “Soundsystem.” Franti has taken the protest song to the next level by giving it a “beat you can rock your soul to.” He then shows a very personal side with “I Got Love for You,”a song that he wrote as his eldest son was preparing to go out on his own for the first time. As with most of Franti’s albums, the last track is one of hope. “Have a Little Faith”does not disappoint, and seeks to reassure the listener of the commitment Franti has to his audience.
Franti’s music is always in a state of evolution, from punk to funk to reggae/dub, it seems to really represent the complex fusion of identities in the growth of the musician and the man. His commitment to humanity led him to organize the annual Power to the Peaceful festivals in San Francisco and Brazil. He has also been named an Ambassador of Peace by the World Health Organization. “At six-foot-six, he’ll grab the mic, and take you to another level.”