This week's topic is music that have soul. What does this mean exactly? When I was mulling this new column over I remembered a piece by Steve Heimoff in 2012 that touched on the topic of soul in wine and used a music analogy, hearing Marvin Gaye’s "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" as a kid, to set the tone. Heimoff was riffing on the thoughts of another writer (Lisa Airy for the Baltimore Sun) after having read their treatment of the question "What does it take to be great?" in the context of wine. There are two points from the original author that Heimoff specifically crafted his piece around that to me answer the question I asked above. They are “A …wine [that] is a very real combination of scent, flavor and texture that is seamless, multi-faceted, and unending from first sip to swallow, from first sip to last sip.” and “The experience [of a soulful wine] should be such a sensorial onslaught as to capture your complete and undivided attention.” Whether it is wine or music those two statements sum up the concept of soul I am hinting at, multi-faceted, intensely textured, sensorially captivating; demanding complete and undivided attention.
I'm late jumping on the Ben Harper train. He's already been underground and indie, has already gone big and won awards, been the "it" musician and best I can tell has now settled into his unique stride entertaining loyal fans with performances worldwide, producing for others and giving time & resources to the many global causes he is outspoken about and supports. Ben Harper's music has a vibrant soul, and based on what I've read about him personally, so does he.
I recently caught "I'm In I'm Out And I'm Gone: The Making of Get Up!"on Palladia. The show is part making of and part studio performance for the new Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite collaboration, "Get Up!" At the time I first watched it I knew next to nothing about Harper and absolutely nothing about Musselwhite, and technically I still don't. But the music commanded my attention. Harper on slide guitar (his signature style which of course I would learn more about after downloading more of his music) and Musselwhite on harmonica is a real sensorial onslaught. "I Don't Believe a Word You Say" is my favorite track from the "Get Up!" disc.
The video above is a the performance of "I Don't Believe a Word You Say" from the Get Up! special. Turn it up loud and listen to the different layers from the musicians. It may be stripped down musically, but is isn't simple and has plenty of soul.
During the special on the making of Get Up! Both Musselwhite and Harper talked about how they met (at a session with John Lee Hooker no less) and that they were “following a feeling” and “letting the music lead them” which brought them to where they were right then. Talk about tuned in, switched on and paying attention!
After the special was over I headed to the cloud. I have been 13 year member of Emusic.com and once I found the Ben Harper page I bounced around the artist bio and album pages to get a feel for what was available and downloaded a cross section of studio and live tunes that I could chew on. Amongst the songs I downloaded there is one I keep coming back to, "The Will To Live". I specifically like the live version of it from the "The Will To Live: Live EP" originally recorded during the 1997 world tour. With lyrics like those below I don't think it is very hard to expect the song to have a bit of soul.
"I met a girl whose heart was on the right hand side
And upon the left an angel did reside
They told her mother that she never would survive
But she kept the rhythm and is still alive, she's still alive
And we must all have the will to live
Oh, you got to have the will to live
Oh, the will, oh, the will
The will to live
I couldn't find that particular version online but this one is similar and should provide context. After listening to the song I immediately stopped to think about what it really means to have the will to live and why don't more people live life to the fullest without having to have experienced calamity for perspective? I've been lucky enough to gain perspective after personal health problems, but I don't think that is required to be able to grasp the soul of this song.
The slide guitar on this track (the live one I specifically like) initially comes across as just behind the bass in the texture stack, then it jumps forward and for the rest of the track they trade places with the guitar also bouncing from right to left and back. It takes focus to absorb it all. Another stylistic facet for Harper is a soulful whisper in his vocals, which is clearly evident on this track. At about four and half minutes (or so depending on version) into the track a group of vocalists, Harper included, create a lullaby type medley that Harper stretches out to nearly the close of the track. There is something so human and soulful there. I'm profoundly touched by it. Examples of this soul exist throughout Ben Harper's collection. If you aren't familiar with Harper and dig an eclectic mix of blues, folk, soul, rock and plenty of energetic guitar playing find this music and stick it in your brain!
So what about the beverages? I am going to go with a pairing rather than deconstruct the soul of a particular drink this week. The music on the Get Up! record offers a lot to take in with its mix of both mellow and up-tempo blues. It immediately made me think of Bourbon, a great example of the harmony of mellow and lively elements in a glass. I watched the special a second time with a glass of Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon in hand and it was a fine pairing indeed. The Bourbon is complex in its own right, with a nice balance of sweet and smoky elements which played off the music very well. It occurred to me that a cigar might have been a nice addition, but I’ll save that for another day.
Sane or crazy, you decide. Hopefully it was entertaining!