Given his melting pot origins - African-American, Cherokee and Jewish - it's no wonder that Benjamin Chase Harper refuses to be tied down by style or fashion. Hugely influenced as a child by seeing Bob Marley perform in Burbank, CA, Harper's family were always around musicians and he learnt important lessons first hand at the knees of greats like Taj Mahal, Leonard Cohen and David Lindley. Enthused, the young Harper became adept at folk rock, jamming and soul funk while rapidly learning to play a bewildering number of instruments such as lap steel guitar, keyboards, vibes and percussion.
Ben followed his major label debut for Virgin, Welcome To The Cruel World, with the accomplished Fight for Your Mind, a solo effort that took in folk-rock, metallic riffing and social commentary with a Jamaican backbeat. Matching his charged songs like 'Oppression' and 'Burn One Down' to specific African and Caribbean references Harper thrilled early fans with a rhythmic expertise that enhanced his subject matter. The Will To Live (1997) now teamed him with his group Innocent Criminals and resulted in the British hit 'Faded'. Constant roadwork helped the disc make inroads in America too and again a heady combination of roots rock ('Jah Work') and crashing through the gears rock ('Mama's Trippin') ensured his word of mouth status began roll large.
Burn To Shine maintained a relationship with producer J.P. Plunier but this time there was greater emphasis on rowdy blues and rollicking neo folk. David Lindley appears on the album on banjo, fiddle and mandolin and there's a country blues rush to cuts like 'Forgiven' and 'In The Lord's Arms', which makes Harper so appealing to devotees of great seventies music who also want to hear something fresh and of the moment.
Live From Mars (2001) is a sublime double disc set of electric and acoustic rock and beyond culled from the previous year's world tour. Featured here are three of his regular and best-loved covers: Marvin Gaye's 'Sexual Healing', Led Zeppelin's 'Whole Lotta Love' and The Verve's 'The Drugs Don't Work'. Needless to say Ben makes these own and they slide into the set like old friends, rapturously received
It was back to the studio again for 2003's Diamonds On the Inside with new-featured guitarist Nicky Panicci. Other guests here are Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the pedal steel virtuoso Greg Leisz and keyboards genius Greg Kurstin. Bringing the funk up several notches Diamonds On the Inside is heartily recommended and gives us the chance to point out that in the title track Harper references Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice; fans of the man also have great fun deciphering other references to the Bard in Ben's own lyrics. There are plenty of 'em.
There Will Be A Light (a collaboration with The Blind Boys of Alabama) is notable for resulting in two Grammies: one for Best Gospel album and one for Best Track, '11th Commandment'. With Marc Ford now replacing Panicci there is no let up in intensity and fans of bluesy church music return to this classic disc for sustenance. If you haven't heard it, you should. The title track 'There Will Be A Light' and 'Church House Steps' are marvellously evocative pieces and the cover of Bob Dylan and Danny O'Keefe's 'Well, Well, Well' slides in beautifully.
Live at the Apollo is a companion disc really since it concentrates on bringing Harper and The Blind Boys back to their spiritual roots in the iconic Harlem theatre where every soul and funk and rare groove legend performed at one time or other. Lifeline (2007) is available in standard format and as a special tour edition that documents a Paris show by Harper & the Innocent Criminals. Sharply booted and suited for this date, Ben really cut loose on a set that was written on the hoof, recorded at breakneck speed and rewarded with an instant rise to the US top ten. A hard rock album at heart this demonstrates the depth of Harper's concert commitment. He gives you everything.
White Lies for Dark Times is as good as its title. Recorded with the Texan band Relentless7 as an adjunct to his other outlets this album is particularly popular in Europe where its restless, challenging spirit seems to have made a connection. Again, if you aren't aware of this Texas blues rocker then grab yourself some action. This is a fantastic electric album.
Same goes for Give Till It's Gone, which features Ringo Starr's drums and a cameo from Jackson Browne. The Relentless7 band are on blistering form on the opening 'Don't Give Up on me Now' and there are elements of this disc that recall Prince in his pomp. Another one to check out.
Given his determination to keep it live whenever possible there's a Live from the Montreal International Jazz Festival which captures Harper in pristine concert surroundings and two career spanning beauties in the shape of By My Side and the immaculate Boxed Set Collection, truly prestigious release that collates Harper's extraordinary impact on his first three albums - everything from Jimi to Dylan - and enhances his reputation no end.
Bringing us bang up to date is 2013's Get Up! recorded by Harper with the veteran electric blues harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite (aka Memphis Charlie) who just happens to be the inspiration for Dan Aykroyd's character in the Blues Brothers. This is a roots delight that will thrill lovers of folk and country and stripped down Delta swamp. 'I Ride at Dawn' is a splendidly dark western noir song while 'She Got Kick' is a sensual blood rush. The title track is epic too: here Harper switches into all out funk mode with a statement of intent in the Sly Stone styled credo. New/old music doesn't get any better than this.
And Harper isn't stopping off a breather either. His restless spirit drives him on to create different challenges on every album. By keeping himself on the move he makes sure his fans are educated and entertained and fed a brand of spiritual nourishment that is rarely heard these days. Ben Harper - he was good when he started and he's even better now. One of the most talented cats on the planet. Where will he go next?
Words: Max Bell
Ben Harper is a road dog. He and his band, the Innocent Criminals, travel around the world playing nearly 200 shows a year; therefore, it was only a matter of time before this guitar virtuoso made a live album. Live From Mars, an enigmatic two-disc set of 25 songs, celebrates the rise of Harper, his incredible live presence between 1998 and 2000, and the appreciation between him and his audience. His fragile acoustics have been thrown into a massive guitar storm on disc one, a thunderous combination of his signature folky blues-funk rock & roll. He's soulful and approachable on "Excuse Me Mr." and "Burn One Down," but he reaches for something tangible on Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing." The vibe is calm and cool while Harper's vocals scale between a sweet falsetto and a rugged twang. "Faded" exudes Harper's electric twitching, and its perfection swaggers into a riveting cover of Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" for a near ten-minute car crash of pure rollicking.
He switches from his electric to an acoustic for disc two, making his informality even more enticing. "Waiting on an Angel" is delicate, similar to the likes of Jeff Buckley, but it's the beauty of the Verve's "The Drugs Don't Work" that truly captures the standard of excellence that Harper depicts as a performer. Acoustically, he's honored and such praise is deserved. He's practically flawless. He's a modest artist, and such humility is found among his songs. He's achieved respectability with his fans that only so many artists are able to attain. Live From Mars is a proper release and certainly an inviting look into Harper and the showmanship he projects while spending time on the road.
Words - MacKenzie Wilson
The full range of Ben Harper's influences would not come to bear until later albums, but his debut, Welcome to the Cruel World, lays a strong foundation. "Like a King" and "Take That Attitude to Your Grave" burn with a political conviction rarely heard during the 1990s. "Forever" has a tenderness which demonstrates Harper's emotional range. Lackluster hippie jams that cultivated his early following may have served a purpose but feel fluffy by comparison when compared to the meatier tracks. Ben closes the album with a song that frequently closes his concerts, "I'll Rise." This song, built around Maya Angelou's 1979 poem "And Still I Rise," reminds one of art's ability to pierce through society, self, and the soul.
Words - Ryan Randall Goble
Fight for Your Mind fully embraces Ben Harper's influences (Dylan, Marley, Havens, and Hendrix) into a complete sound while simultaneously broadening his thematic and musical palette. Oliver Charles' tactile drumming and Leon Mobley's percussion work give a sparkle to Harper's music that was absent on his debut. Songs like "Gold to Me" and "Excuse Me Mr." show Harper growing as a poet, approaching ideas via more subtle avenues. The single "Ground on Down" and epic jam "God Fearing Man" capture some of the explosive energy of his live performances. The latter makes allusions to "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," and that's exactly what Harper does -- allows his trademark Weissenborn guitar to scream out to his audience. The only misstep on this album is his sophomoric weed anthem "Burn One Down," but one might argue that a little tarnish adds character.
Words - Ryan Randall Goble
On his third album, Will to Live, Ben Harper strengthens his populist folk with a grittier groove, which even borders on funk, that makes his music more immediate. Harper still has a tendency to preach, yet his melodies are catchier than before, and he has a better sense of rhythm, helping his bluesy songs catch hold.
Words - Leo Stanley
Burn to Shine presents proof positive that you can always distill the essence of rock & roll down to a solitary man alone with his guitar and conscience. It sounds inventive yet firmly rooted in the blues-rock singer/songwriter/guitarist tradition of Taj Mahal and of Neil Young and Cat Stevens at their most confessional. Harper's guitar with falsetto vocal in "The Woman in You" even suggests a Curtis Mayfield tune in the hands of Prince. "Steal My Kisses" is one of those uncluttered, radio-friendly rock shuffles that simply makes you bob your head and feel better. Even Harper's detours -- like the wobbling New Orleans shuffle with the Real Time Jazz Band, "Suzie Blue," and charred Black Sabbath metal in "Less" -- prove worth exploring. Other cameos include guitarists David Lindley and former Bob Marley sideman Tyrone Downey. Burn to Shine is a minor masterpiece that may prove to be not so minor.
Words - Chris Slawecki
Ben Harper is a musical preacher of sorts, never one to be shy in speaking his mind about social conformity. If his first two albums -- Welcome to the Cruel World and Fight for Your Mind -- didn't clue you in, Diamonds on the Inside will definitely do so. Diamonds on the Inside marks Harper's fifth studio effort and this time he's emotionally in touch with what makes his heart burst. This is a passionate album, no doubt. His signature Weissenborn guitar joins him once more and Harper's classic groovy funk is heavy; however, Harper adds worldbeat to his musical plank.
From the Marley-esque vibe of "With My Own Two Hands" to the African soundscapes of Ladysmith Black Mambazo on "Picture of Jesus," Harper's purist presentation is smooth. "When It's Good" gives a little country blues twang, while "Touch From You Lust" is a sexy haze of writhing riffs. "Temporary Remedy" follows the funk Lenny Kravitz-style, and Harper's a bit campy. It's a noticeable change from his typically serious stature and a nice shift in personality, too. Diamonds on the Inside is another stunning effort from one of rock's underground heroes. Harper has consistently worked with what appeals to him musically for nearly a decade, ignoring what fits the mainstream. Diamonds on the Inside is Harper's sixth chapter of truth and just one listen to the electric blaze of "Everything" will convince you.
Words - MacKenzie Wilson
While it's always been true that Ben Harper has been a musically restless soul with a penchant for changing up his groove from album to album, most of them have been recorded with his longtime unit the Innocent Criminals. As a result, both live and in the studio, a particular vibe existed. Familiarity breeds that, and it also sets up a dynamic. For White Lies for Dark Times, Harper put the Innocent Criminals on hiatus and hooked up with a new group: three Austin, TX transplants to Los Angeles called Relentless7, comprised of guitarist Jason Mozersky, bassist Jesse Ingalls, and drummer Jordan Richardson. The end result is, to say the least, explosive. While it's true that this 11-track collection does have some beautiful acoustic balladry on it, and a touch of Harper's brand of soul in its grooves, most of what we find here is balls out Rock with a potent dose of ragged, modern Texas blues thrown in.
Indeed this may be the most electric sounding recording Harper has ever issued. He co-wrote six of the tracks with his bandmates, and those he wrote himself have been arranged and/or written to be played with this band. It's in the mix from the opener, "Number with No Name," the slow slide guitar playing an electric blues stomp that's pure Harper, but the drums are pure thud and whomp rather than snap and crackle. The bassline is enormous and the second guitar matches both volume and nastiness with that slide. In other words, this sounds like a band playing this jam, not Harper and his band. One can hear traces of Jimi Hendrix, early ZZ Top, and Johnny Winter in the attack, but it's pure rocking blues thunder and lightning spit out via Texas and the Delta.
The more spacy rock of "Up to You Now" is more directly a "Harper" tune with its stretched rhythmic sense and soulful vocal, but the utterly popping bass and wooly distorted guitar mix move it beyond his sensitive singer/songwriter frame. "Shimmer & Shine," the set's first single, begins as a double-timed rocker with Richarsdon's drum break, but kicks in with a staggered set of power chords that blend angsty punk and anthemic rock. "Why Must You Always Dress in Black" is pure blues-rock venom, the overdriven distortion (engineer and co-producer Danny Kalb did a brilliant job on this set, and on this track in particular) makes the guitars sound like they're breathing fire. The scattershot breaks from Richardson are impressive, especially as underscored with a syncopated bass pattern that marries blues, rock, and funk by Ingalls. Harper's slide chops -- especially when matched against that screaming blues riff of Mozersky's -- marks the toughest cut on the set.
And that's saying something, because there isn't a throwaway here. Whether it's the shimmering, gospel-tinged balladry of "Skin Thin," the crunchy wah-wah electric funk-rock of "Keep It Together (So I Can Fall Apart)," the tripped out voodoo-psych, percussion-driven skronk that is "Boots Like These," or the straight up gorgeous, midtempo soul-rock ballad "Faithfully Remain," that closes the set on an uplifting (if reserved) note; it's all inspired and executed flawlessly. And while it's true that many of the tunes have lyrics that reflect anger, disillusionment, and sometimes bitterness, the snarling yet joyous attack in the music balances them. This is the record that finally matches the excitement Harper generates in a live setting and is not to be missed.
Words - Thom Jurek
This musical hookup between these two experienced roots artists who have more in common than it seems at first glance, is a natural evolution for both. Ben Harper seemed like an old soul, even when he began his career, dipping into classic R&B, gospel, and blues but spinning them through his dark, folk-funk persona. His work with the Blind Boys of Alabama showed him to be welcomed by veteran artists who clearly felt he was a kindred spirit. Harpist/guitarist Charlie Musselwhite's extensive r&b; typically moved him past the often limiting structure of the Chicago blues where he first made his presence felt, to Tex-Mex, Cuban, Americana, swamp rock, country, and even jazz. The two connected on a 1997 John Lee Hooker session and have worked together intermittently since, both live and in the studio.
This outing, tellingly released on the Concord/Stax imprint, strips the sound down, occasionally to just acoustic guitar and harp as on the opening of "Don't Think Twice," and the closing deep Delta blues "All That Matters Now," reworked into "It Hurts Me Too." But the duo also plug in for tough, rugged blues and blues-rock as on the heart thumping "I'm in I'm Out and I'm Gone," a twist on David Bowie's "The Jene Genie" riff that itself was nabbed from the Chicago blues catalog. Even with Musselwhite's substantial involvement, this is Harper's show as he produces, sings every song, and seems to be leading the music's direction with the harmonica player urging him on and adding to the already deep groove. They dip into harder rocking territory for the charging "I Don't Believe a Word You Say" with Musselwhite pulling out his Little Walter influences with electrified blowing.
The skeletal, ghostly, repeated riff of the deadly gunslinger "I Ride at Dawn" is a stark reminder of how less is more as Harper's slide enhances the dangerous elements reflected in the song's ominous lyrics. The six-minute title track -- the disc's longest cut -- is classic Harper, marrying a funky bassline with the declaration expressed in the song's title as Musselwhite takes a few licks from Paul Butterfield to edge the track into a laid-back red zone where the singer typically thrives. But the twosome have some fun, too, in particular on the spirited, easygoing, sexed-up blues "She Got Kick," one of the few instances where harmonica is not an integral component of the mix. Ultimately, Get Up! earns its titular exclamation point as a successful combination of two talented veterans feeding off each other's dusky, creative spirit.
Words - Hal Horowitz
As it's played out on his recordings, the very gift that has been such a boon to Ben Harper has also been his bane: his musical restlessness and the wide range of styles he seems to employ. It's obvious, and has been since his sophomore offering, Fight for Your Mind, that Harper is not only a master guitarist but a fine songwriter and a great showman. He's been under the sway of legends like Marley, Hendrix, Dylan, Redding, and to a lesser extent, Havens. On his recordings he's wrapped them all up together continually, creating an identity forged on that diversity. That said, as a result, the albums have often suffered. In a live context that shape-shifting change can be -- and more often than not is -- seamless and utterly exciting. In the studio it doesn't gel so easily.
His last studio record, Both Sides of the Gun in 2006, attempted a narrower, albeit mellower focus; but he spread it over two discs! The desire to concentrate on a single identity -- as a singer/songwriter -- resulted in a less than optimal, sometimes even boring, result; a single disc would have been more easily swallowed. Perhaps this is why his most satisfying and consistent offering is arguably his collaboration with the Blind Boys of Alabama on There Will Be a Light from 2004 -- until now.
Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals entered Gang Studio in Paris in November of 2006, immediately after finishing a nine-month world tour that ended with eight weeks in Europe. They loaded in their gear, rehearsed, and recorded directly to analog tape -- i.e., without the aid of computers or Pro Tools -- and mixed in seven days.
The result is a deeply focused, loose, and laid-back record that is musically compelling and deeply soulful, and contains some of Harper's finest songs to date. At this time, the Innocent Criminals are drummer Oliver Charles, percussionist Leon Mobley, Juan Nelson on bass, guitarist Michael Ward, and Jason Yates plays keyboards, with a pair of backing vocalists, Michelle Haynes and Rovleta Fraser. Clocking in at just over 40 minutes, this is a brief record for Harper, but it serves him well. The music is a seamless meld of soulful folk, gospel, countryish rock, and blues. The operative genre here, however, is the rootsy soul that Harper could always sing, and Ward's fills along with the electric Wurlitzer, acoustic pianos, and Hammond B-3 employed by Yates make it all swing, while the steady yet slippery percussion roots the music deeply in the groove, which is mellow but tough.
Ben Harper's history with the Blind Boys of Alabama has been an evolving one that has moved from being a guest on their Higher Ground offering and touring with them in Europe, to the Blind Boys joining Ben and the Innocent Criminals on-stage at the front and back of their show. This album began as a series of rehearsals for collaboration on a Blind Boys of Alabama record. Recorded in two sessions, the vibe in the room was loose and creative enough that the two acts ended up with an album of material for a joint release.
This is "collaboration" in the truest sense of the word. It's not just Ben playing gospel, or the Blind Boys of Alabama singing on a Ben Harper record. These ten tunes -- with seven Harper originals written specifically for the sessions, the rest traditional gospel tunes and covers -- showcase Harper and the Innocent Criminals alongside the Blind Boys of Alabama. The album kicks off with Harper's "Take My Hand," a funky gospel tune that showcases a Fender Rhodes and Harper's wah-wah pedal underscored by the call and response of the Blind Boys repeating the title after each sung line of the verse, before Clarence Fountain takes it out. "Wicked Man" is a Southern soul tune that has a Muscle Shoals groove and a beautiful vocal weave on the refrain. "Church House Steps" is pure gospel groove with a Hammond B3 and a smoking duet between the Blind Boys' layered harmonies and Harper on the verses with full-on blues feel in his singing and playing.
There's a killer cover of the Bob Dylan/Danny O'Keefe tune, "Well, Well, Well," with Delta blues bottleneck shimmering through the intertwined vocal lines. The deep, nocturnal sparseness of "Satisfied Mind" is a complete re-reading of the nugget with a swampy backbeat. And this album works beautifully. Nothing sounds forced, all of it loose and comfortable and the vocal performances on both sides are simply stellar. Highly recommended.
Words - Thom Jurek