By TIM DAVID HARVEY
GET UP! That's the name of Ben Harper's latest album and collaboration with blues legend Charlie Musselwhite, but maybe it's time for everyone to wake up to one of the worlds best singer/songwriters. When it comes to the Johnny Cash like legends of American recordings and leading music men icons it would be hard to see past the legendary worn jeans of every man entertainer Bruce Springsteen and the spokesman of the people for the best part of a century, Bob Dylan and his legacy. Still with a songbook as prolific as the number of acts he's associated with, the man with more groups than benefit concerts is our generations true American singer/songwriter for the people. Currently on an earth turning acoustic tour the man that strummed alongside Jack Johnson and Eddie Vedder for some pearl jams is showing the deepest depths of his character and craft. Still, the man who can rock and roll out the slow numbers is still somewhat criminally underrated in this modern mainstream market, even though there is a cult following loyal to his underground legend.
Maybe it's because of just how dynamic and diverse he is. Some people say a jack of all trades is an expert in nothing, but in this case that couldn't be further from the truth that is Ben. Sometimes when someone works so hard and so much and does it all so well, people fail to acknowledge exactly that after awhile. They get used to how good something or someone is and take it for granted. Still, that isn't going to stop Harper from working on his art and music. He has his own opinion too, once telling an interviewer that in this iTunes cherry-picking age someone looking him up and looking for some hard rock may find an acoustic number or vice versa and be disappointed depending on their desire. Such is this mans range and dedication like the electric Dylan or acoustic Bruce. Such is the fire and ice sides of a man who can go from joy to pain in many a song or expressed emotion. The same man who wrote 'When She Believes' can also sing 'I Don't Believe A Word You Say' and this is why the multi-instrumentalist crazily has won Grammy's for both best 'pop performance' and 'gospel album'. The eclectic, epic, energetic output is matched by no one in the industry today and tomorrow he'll get back to work once again. From his lap steel guitar to his slide one, this stand up guy has broke boundaries and broadened continents from a seated playing position. The humanitarian activist with an amazing live set has so much to add to the listography of his already classic career. From folk, to blues, to soul, to funk, to reggae, to jam rock and even neo-folk. It all started in Californian for the middle-named Chase, Cherokee and African-American ancestry and Jewish upbringing that made it's way to the worlds stage in 1992 with some 'Pleasure & Pain'.
What more can you expect but inspiration from a man that saw Bob Marley play when he was 9? When his collaboration with Tom Freund (look for another one soon) came into peoples limited-edition playlists, it was clear this artist was here to stay. Virgin records where so impressed they gave him a lifetime deal...and what a deal it's turned out to be. Two years later we where 'Welcome To The Cruel World' with classics like the beautiful 'Waiting On An Angel' and the bold Martin Luther King Jr/Rodney King race protest 'Like A King'. He even collaborated with prolific poet Maya Angelou for the inspired 'I'll Rise'. Between the fire of having a big heart for love and the ice of a soul with something truly to say, Harper showed both sides of the gun, the Elgin Baylor (fire) and Jerry West (ice) of this Laker fans work that would make for his career and legacy. It didn't stop a year later when he brought his backing band 'The Innocent Criminals' along for the punch of 'Fight For Your Mind'. The album that inspired a college radio revolution is still a Harper hallmark today. 'By My Side' is the truest testament and 'Another Lonely Day' has had a live face-riff-lift recently, while the continuing protests of 'Excuse Me Mr.' still resonate today. From the opening 'Oppression' to the fire of 'Burn One Down' and shine of 'Gold To Me', in one album Harper gave as many classic track as some songwriters have today in their whole discography. The worldwide talent continued to go platinum overseas in Australia and France with 'The Will To Live' album (including the spiritual 'I Want To Be Ready' and 'Jah Work' and the grand 'Fighter' film ready 'Glory & Consequence') and 'Burn To Shine' and it's fun 'Steal My Kisses' single that even got a hip Pharrell, Neptunes remix for its beat-boxing hop. 'Alone', 'The Woman In You', 'Beloved One', 'Suzie Blue' and 'Please Bleed', gave even more classics to the catalog that still last for set-lists and playlists.
The million man mover almost went literally diamond with his next one, as his coming of mainstream age album 'Diamonds On The Inside' went platinum to the tune of six times around the world. His first album of the new millennium marked a new beginning of brave beauty with the likes of 'When She Believes' and the heaven sent 'Amen Omen'. Adding more strings to his bands bow with his own two hands. That and the albums title-track where and remain huge while 'Brown Eyed Blues' and 'Blessed To Be A Witness' continued his specialist skill-set in his diverse range. As Ben sings "I have heard the wisest of wisdom/And I have dined in palaces and kingdoms/But nothing is as beautiful/As when she believes" it's clear he's not forgotten who he is, where he's from or who he's doing it for. A year later he reached out to others in his spiritual quest however, as he aligned with the legendary Blind Boys Of Alabama for 'There Will Be A Light' a grand, Grammy making gospel album that inspired and influenced and could even lift the heaviest of hearts. From the '11th Commandment' to a 'Satisfied Mind', Ben saw the light with his boys from Alabama and with more classics like 'Well, Well, Well' and 'Where I Could Go' coming alive on the concert album (that you can add to the set-list of classic, release live pieces) let's hope this collaboration one day makes it to church on time again. In the shadow of the light, Ben reunited with his 'Innocent Criminals' two years later for a defining double album which is truly his best.
'Both Sides Of The Gun' yet again gave both sides of this mans coin but afforded much more than that in the darkest depths and boldest beauty of this mans most personal work. The opening tracks of this album really play perfectly back-to-back. Beginning with the moving violins of the most beautiful song 'Morning Yearning' (which is so pure and poetic, the lyrics are on this writers wall next to Springsteen's equally string beautiful 'Secret Garden') to the wonderful ballad 'Waiting For You', bordered by 'Picture In A Frame'. The 'White' and 'Black' titled sides of this album show both sides of the singers musical personality perfectly. The sweet 'Never Leave Lonely Alone' was matched with the strong 'Engraved Invitation', like 'More Than Sorry' and 'Get It Like You Like It' and so forth. Real highlights came from the instrumental break of 'Sweet Nothing Serenade' into the yearnings of 'Reason To Mourn' on 'White', or the bold, call to inspiration arms of 'Better Way' to kick off 'Guns' 'Black' disc and many a political campaign. The man who screamed how he believed in a better way, showed it with this powerfully proven album. The child of The Beatles even had a little help from his friends as late, legendary Australian actor Heath Ledger brought an equally beautiful, classically arty video to his homeland for 'Morning Yearning'. The ever gracious Harper, returned Heath's favor by writing an equally beautiful lullaby for Ledger's daughter in the heavenly 'Happy Everafter In Your Eyes'. As Ben sings "Couldn't leave you to go to heaven/I carry you in my smile", today these words are as heartbreaking as they are moving.
Ben had one more swansong with 'The Innocent Criminals' in his 'Lifeline' which saw a 'Paris, Sunrise', being recorded and toured in France. As fluent as he was in the language, he was in making simply another perfect album. Rehearsed during sound checks and recorded in analogue this 7 day made album was anything but a weak affair with the strong single 'Fight Outta You' and the vibrancy of the 'In The Colors' portrait. 'Needed You Tonight', 'Heart Of Matters' and the title-track struck more chords but this would be the last track and album to date for the hero and his criminals who really should do one last job together...again and again. Two years later Harper cranked up the amp for rock outfit Relentless7 who debuted on the 'Black' tones of 'Serve Your Soul' off 'Both Sides Of The Gun'. Here on a solo collabo and tour which should really garner more, the collective shimmered and shined over instant classics like 'Up To You Now' and 'Lay There And Hate Me'. Exposing some 'White' worthy acoustic purity in the harmonizing 'Faithfully Remain', haunting 'Skin Thin' and harrowing 'The Word Suicide,' before inspiring everyone with the truly uplifting 'Fly One Time' and it's courage knows no boundaries video that would be perfect for a Red Bull commercial. The 'White Lies For Dark Times' was as creatively vivid and deep as it's title and as colorful and as Summer vibrant as its artwork. As Ben sang, you had to live his life to get 'Boots Like These' and boy did the man who's recently adapted to wearing stetsons truly earn his hard rock spurs. Further collaborations came in a 'Fistful Of Mercy' with Joseph Arthur and George Harrison's son Dhani in a skate-park in Santa Monica that led to the amazing 'As I Call You Down' album and it's title track, band-name track and the genuinely undeniable 'In Vain Or True'. Fans who miss acts like Relentless7 will be pleased to know that this acoustic big-three will be releasing more Fistfuls Of Mercy with their own three hands soon.
After all these acts Ben went solo again for 'Give Till' It's Gone' with a little help from his Beatle friend Ringo. Whom he returned the favor backing his album like he did with a Dixie Chick (producing Natalie Maines new L.P.) for even more collaborations. Relentless7 logged some studio time however and what resulted was one of Ben's best albums across the board possibly only rivaled by his last solo set 'Both Sides' or 'Diamonds'. Following the live debut of the emotive 'Feel Love' and the literal 'Rock N Roll Is Free' download, Harper harked on with the bold cry of 'Don't Give Up On Me Now' and the deep desperation of 'Pray That Our Love Sees The Dawn'. Writing from the heart this tattooed warrior inked more of his real reputation with the delightfully defiant 'I Will Not Be Broken' and the cranked up 'Dirty Little Lover' and it's grimier conclusion 'Do It For You, Do It For Us', that finalized an instrumental album of fire over ice inspired writing and playing. The 'By My Side' greatest hits of ballads retrospective and the nice new track 'Crazy, Amazing' followed, but if anyone thought this collection was Ben's way of saying he was done or at least a little dusted was wrong. Rightfully so Harper returned this year to 'Get Up' on another collaboration with blues man Musselwhite. He and Charlie slipped and slid over classic iron strong strings with tracks like another classically titled break of 'I Lost Another Lover (You Found Another Friend)' and the western draw of 'I Ride At Dawn'. It's the pleading , blues treading of 'We Can't End This Way' and the "There's a man on the corner/Begging for help/There's a man that walks past him/And he's drowning in wealth/Who doesn't understand/How disappointment destroys the soul" insightful, introspective lyrics that may just be one of Ben's best songs in not just years but his career. Now what's next for the man who is going it alone yet again for an amazing acoustic tour around the world? Well anything from the guy that's covered everything from Marvin Gaye's 'Sexual Healing' to Michael Hutchence's 'Never Tear Us Apart' with INXS and 'Strawberry Fields' with his own forever making twist. Or how about another duet album this time with his mother on mothers day with 'My Childhood Home'? Sounds perfect right? Collaborating with saint and criminals and with the potential to reunite them all, what could possibly stop the hardest working man in music still on a quest for relevance respect for his just cause?
Not fire...not ice.