Monday, December 21, 2009
BEST OF THE '00s: BEN HARPER
I have to admit, I've always been rooting for him. When I read about people seeing Bruce Springsteen at the Stone Pony or Bob Marley on his first U.S. tour, I wondered if I'd ever get to see a talent of that caliber before the general public got wise. In 1994, I was an intern at CMJ magazine, and I found an interesting-looking promo CD. I just liked the way it looked! It was four songs from Ben's classic debut, Welcome To The Cruel World, and it had "Don't Take That Attitude To Your Grave" and "Mama's Got A Girlfriend Now" and a two others. I was sold. I bought the full CD and then went to see Ben perform at Maxwell's in Hoboken, New Jersey, opening for Alejandro Escovedo. I was blown away by Ben's set (Alejandro was great too). I became evangelical, buying extra copies of his CD and giving it to anyone who I thought had good taste in music. But that was the '90s, lets talk about the '00s.
Ben kicked off the decade with some great covers: The Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever" from the I Am Sam soundtrack, and The Temptations' "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" and Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" -- both backed by the legendary Funk Brothers -- for the documentary film Standing In The Shadows Of Motown. What other contemporary artist would have the stones to even attempt those songs? He paid the highest tribute to the originals by being respectful while bringing his own persona to the song.
But Ben is no covers artist. In 2003 he returned with a classic album of his own, Diamonds On The Inside which featured one of his best songs, "With My Own Two Songs," a song that I believe people will be singing in a hundred years from now and beyond. The album was a culmination of everything he'd done at that point: reggae, blues, soul, rock and roll and even metal (if you don't believe me, go 15 seconds into "So High So Low").
The following year, he released the amazing collaboration with gospel legends The Blind Boys Of Alabma, There Will Be A Light, maybe my favorite or second favorite album of the decade. Such an amazing collaboration, I'm not a good enough writer to put this one into words. I'll say this: I've seen a lot of concerts in my life. I've seen a lot of Ben Harper concerts in my life. But Ben with the Blind Boys at the Apollo Theater in Harlem is one of the greatest performances I have ever seen.
I would imagine that that album must have been pretty difficult to follow up. The next album was 2006's double album Both Sides Of The Gun, which was sort of half a solo album and half with his incredible backing band, The Innocent Criminals, who I should have mentioned already. This album was even more diverse than Diamonds, and as usual, showed no compromise to the commercial music market (and that said, most of his music is totally accessible, as long as you don't require being pandered to). There are so many great songs to talk about here, but I'll go with "Better Way," another one that will be sung in an century, long after we are gone.
I'll pause here for a second to give props to his record label. I don't know if he has a good relationship with them, but it shocks me that a record label has stuck with a non-hit-single artist like Ben for so long. Maybe they hold him to a different standard than the rest of their roster, and they should.
In 2007, he returned with his second best album of the decade, Lifeline. This one was recorded with The Innocent Criminals right after a tour, and would be their last album for a while. It was a great one to say goodbye with.
This year, he made the really daring move of changing bands - on the Lifeline tour he got big enough to sell out two nights in a row at Radio City Music Hall. His label and management must have been thinking "finally!" So what does he do? Puts The Innocent Criminals on hiatus and gets together with a harder rocking combo, Relentless7 and starts playing bars. He knows what he's doing. I love both bands -- and I'm sure he does also. I'm sure he'll play with the Criminals in the future, just as Bruce doesn't always work with E Street and Neil Young doesn't always rock with Crazy Horse.
This post is getting a bit long, and I haven't even gone into his collaborations with Jack Johnson (who he helped to put on the map), Willie Nelson, Toots Hibbert, Stephen Marley, Bonnie Raitt, and Eddie Vedder. So I'll wrap it up here -- if you are looking to get into Ben, comment here and I'll get back to you, or just post a "beginner's guide to Ben Harper."
More Best Of The '00s: Bob Dylan