Well, the collaboration works. It could have been stolid hero worship. It could have been an awkward attempt at modernizing the sound of a legend. It could have fallen flat for any of a dozen well-intentioned reasons. Instead, contemporary blues-rocker Ben Harper and longtime John Lee Hooker compatriot Charlie Musselwhite left no room for doubt Saturday at the Orpheum: For just over 100 minutes, they were two bluesmen wholly in tune with one another, generations apart or no.
They stormed out of the gate with “I Don't Believe a Word You Say,” Harper’s lap-steel slide guitar and Musselwhite's harmonica fusing into a one-chord groan steeped in the same mutated Delta blues as Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks.” From there, they tackled the entirety of their recent album “Get Up!,” tossing in a few detours into both men’s solo careers as well as a cover of the churning “Levee” itself for good measure.
The songs spanned a range of blues styles: the electric Chicago shuffle of “The Blues Overtook Me,” the lopsided New Orleans gait of “She Got Kick,” the swampy “Homeless Child,” the street corner plea “We Can't End This Way,” the smoky, last-call piano blues of “All That Matters Now.” Others captured the soul of the blues even when they were a bit more stylistically liberal. “Blood Side Out” had the sharp frenzy of the White Stripes, and the simmering drive of “Get Up!,” with Jesse Ingalls’s thrumming, almost subliminal bass line, was like a wolf circling its prey.
Musselwhite showed off his mastery of his instrument on that song while offering little more than atmospherics throughout. “All That Matters Now” was given over as much to his harmonica as to Harper’s lyrics, if not more so, but instead of approaching it like a lead player, he darted in and out of the band. And his solo in “I’m In, I’m Out, I’m Gone” ranged from a murmur to a wail.
Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite
Mostly, though, he quite visibly cued off of Harper, the two men playing with the type of sympathy that either exists between musicians or doesn’t. The same couldn’t quite be said for the audience, who responded to Harper singing the final verse of the closing “All That Matters Now” unamplified by screaming their approval. Harper gave hand signals that the moment would work better in silence, but to no avail. At least he and Musselwhite had no problem reading one another.