The ghosts of vaudeville still inhabit the walls of the 100-year-old Palace Theatre in St. Paul. Inject some legit blues to the house, with pain and honesty, and the spirits are bound to dance.
Singer/guitarist Ben Harper brought the fire last night, but it was harmonica-slinger Charlie Musselwhite who brought the history to their blues.
With instruments bathed in shades of violet and orange, Harper and Musselwhite came onstage together, and launched “You Found Another Lover (I Lost Another Friend)” with wounded vocals and wrapped in plaintive harmonica.
The band then joined them, readied themselves, and Harper threw a curveball. He and Musselwhite played “Trust You to Dig My Grave” as a duo as the band left the stage. No amplification at all was used for the song. There was a lot of “shushing” in the audience.
After a spectral “Nothing at All” featuring Harper at the piano, the band joined in earnest with the ominous “I Ride at Dawn.” An early highlight, the song was a journey with dramatic hits, and played on a blood-red stage.
The full band sound really hit its stride on the Musselwhite sung “The Blues Overtook Me” and the classic blues shuffle “I’m In I’m Out and I’m Gone,” during which Harper got the audience to sing along with the line “careful talking to yourself, ‘cause you just may be listening.”
Harper reminded the crowd to “tip your bartenders” while beginning “The Bottle Wins Again”. The song smelled of a Southern swamp and the truth as Musselwhite’s harmonica danced in the foreground.
His harp-playing throughout the evening added texture and an almost vocal quality to the songs, while Harper’s slide guitar was just as dirty and gruff as the songs required.
The subtly funky bassline of “Get Up!” really got the band communing with the spirits of blues, magic, and theater. Afterward, Harper remarked, “There is no other venue in St. Paul, in Minneapolis, is there? This is it.” He called the Palace his new favorite place to play in the Midwest.
(The venue should now enjoy the benefits of the “Harper bump.”)
Harper then made “a very special dedication to the soon to be next ex-president” as he opened up the throttle on “I Don’t Believe a Word You Say,” a rock-hard song for rock-hard times.
Musselwhite again took the mic for “I’m Going Home,” and he led the crowd through the song’s killer tempo changes.
When the time came for band introductions, Musselwhite described Harper as,“my friend, my North Star, Ben Harper.” Harper returned the favor by telling a story about visiting the Jimi Hendrix museum in London, which houses Hendrix’s own personal record collection, including Musselwhite’s own 1967 album Stand Back.
If you’re cool enough for Hendrix to have listened to….
“Found the One” was straight up garage boogie, and it was glorious to behold. A drum breakdown in the middle of the song quickly escalated into a full-fledged solo
, which took the wind out of the performance of a song that had initially been a tight little number. The crowd ate up the showmanship, though, and Harper came back to the mic to bring the congregation to order.
“Who’s going to church Sunday?” Crowd responded with nervous chuckles, and some cheers. “Me, I guess. Of all the churches, mosques, temples, black folks have the most fun.”
Grabbing a tambourine from his drummer, he continued, “Jesus is in the tambourine. If you can’t play the tambourine, you might as well sit down, and put money on the collection plate or something.”
Harper proceeded to show the crowd how the instrument is played, gospel-style. He then mentioned how artists like Chuck Berry, Buddy Guy, and Odetta took that tambourine rhythm, and translated it to the guitar, prompting another demonstration.
The band joined in and took the audience to church with a scorching rendition of “Movin’ On”, ending the main set to thunderous applause.
Harper, Musselwhite, and friends returned for a strong three song encore that included the title track from the duo’s recent album, No Mercy in this Land. Musselwhite took the mic again for the insta-party “Long Legged Woman,” and they finished with a stormy version of “When the Levee Breaks.”
“Thank you for pressing play.” Harper continued, “Thank you for telling a friend. Thank you for being St. Paul.”
After Harper also thanked Heimie’s Haberdashery down the street for the hat he was wearing, the band left the stage, and séance was over. The ghosts settled down as the crowd filed out of the old theater into a glorious August night.
You Found Another Lover (I Lost Another Friend)
Trust You to Dig My Grave
Nothing at All
I Ride at Dawn
Don’t Look Twice
The Blues Overtook Me
I’m In I’m Out and I’m Gone
The Bottle Wins Again
I Don’t Believe a Word You Say
I’m Going Home
When Love is Not Enough
She Got Kick
Found the One
No Mercy in this Land
Long Legged Woman
When the Levee Breaks
The crowd : Big, enthusiastic, and chockablock with backwards baseball caps and bald spots.
Overheard in the crowd : “Was that Rivers Cuomo? The guy from Weezer. You know who I am talking ab… Wait. It isn’t him.”
Random notebook dump : Alex Lahey is playing at the Entry tonight, too? Dammit.