Harper and Midwest Kind – Rise Up
Access Records USA
10 songs – 41 minutes
June 2020 is a perfect time to receive a CD like Rise Up, the latest release from Australian singer/songwriter, Harper. In such divisive times, with race riots occurring around the world, stoked by the reprehensible behavior of certain world leaders, it is refreshing and uplifting to listen to Rise Up and be reminded of the restorative powers of music.
Harper is a pretty distinctive musician. He sings his smartly-written songs superbly, but he may be an even better harp player than he is a singer (his soaring solo on “Heavy Horses” is aural magic). In addition, he adds keyboards and guitar to the mix, as well as didgeridoo. This reviewer had never previously considered the prospect of adding the native Australian wind instrument to blues-based tracks, but as soon as you hear it, you wonder why it hasn’t been done a lot before. Its haunting drone adds a novel timbre that recalls both the hypnotic boogie of Mississippi Hill Country Blues as well as Taj Mahal’s explorations of blues and Malian music on his 1999 release with kora-player Toumani Diabaté, Kulanjan. This is emphasized on the title track, which kicks off with a couple of drum clicks before the drums and didgeridoo lay down a groove over which Geoff Michael’s blues slide guitar fits perfectly.
Featuring 10 self-composed tracks (one co-written with Bobbi Llewellyn), Rise Up is a joyful, edifying experience, from the opening title track (with its message that “People standing up for what they believe. It’s been too long since we had relief. Things can change, you’ve got to be heard. Nothing’s really stronger than words. Rise up. Hold On.”) to the dreamy ballad “World’s Insane” and the beautiful duet with Llewellyn on “Heavy Horses” that recalls the best of 60s soul with a catchy descending guitar riff. Lyrically, a number of songs address social issues as well as more traditional matters of the heart.
Harper’s songs are all tightly constructed musically. On a track like the grinding “Welcome Home”, a single note tremoloed guitar subtly follows the vocal melody during the verse while a heavy blues slide guitar lick lays the rhythm background for another stellar harp solo, all underpinned by an irresistible groove from bassist Dan “Ozzie” Anderson and drummer Jim Pryor. Harper’s vocal melody on “Let You Go” takes unexpected twists as Anderson’s bass riff enables the digeridoo to float ominously in the background. He neatly avoids classic 12-bar blues structures whilst still ensuring that every song has the blues as a fundamental ingredient.
It certainly helps to add lashings of slide guitar to a track like “Blues I Can’t Use” courtesy of guest Paul Nelson, but Brent Baxter Barrett adds an almost reggae feel to “I Still Got You” and it still feels like blues.
Engineered, mixed and mastered with aplomb by Geoff Michael at Big Sky Recording, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Rise Up is an affecting delight and warmly recommended.