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Songs of the South

Ben Harper
Musical Renegade: Guitarist Ben Harper performs Monday at the Edge.

One moment Ben Harper croons like an urbane Taj Majal; the next, he yodels like a Malian griot

By Nicky Baxter

TEXAS-BORN Blind Willie Johnson was a singing, guitar-playing man. A true man of God, he knew better than to stick to the stained-glass corridors in houses of worship. The Baptist preacher figured that the best way to reach the wayward was to play the music they listened to: blues music. During his short, peripatetic existence, his bluesed-up gospel made believers of at least a few souls. So powerful was Johnson's singing and slide playing that, fortysomething years after his death, his gospel-blues spirit laid hands on a wavy-haired 25-year-old named Ben Harper. The boy's possessed; got the music in his soul.

Not that Johnson's is the sole spirit whose presence can be vibed on Welcome to the Cruel World, Harper's debut, or Fight For Your Mind, his second go-round. The names of Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix crop up as well when discussing Harper's music. But somewhere among all those ghosts is a young musician called Ben Harper, a living, breathing being with his own agenda, his own history to make.

Fight does not disavow the slide guitarist­singer's fidelity to these idols. Listen to how, on "Ground on Down," Harper manipulates amplification to simulate Jimi's distortion-doused intro to Are You Experienced. (The coda's a blast, as well.) Indeed, "Ground on Down" is a brilliant illustration of Harper's evolving perception of what "acoustic" music is. Where Welcome to the Cruel World was a mite more respectful of purists with tender ears, Fight For Your Mind demands to be cranked up and taken on its own squalling terms.

Harper's status as a musical renegade has dovetailed nicely with the public perception that he is also something of a political rebel. On back of the Cruel World dust-jacket he stands in vaguely prole gear, half-clenched fist raised in a gentler version of the Black Power salute. The album itself is chockful of MLK ruminations on social justice.

On Fight, the rebel tendency persists with the inclusion of the late reggae artist Peter Tosh's "You Can't Blame the Youth," among a number of others. Harper's "Youth" underscores his refusal to stay put, musically, but the song's message is rendered impotent by a lack of focus; there's no intimation as to which youth the song is addressed. Tactically, however, covering "You Can't Blame the Youth" was an astute career move. (A Chicago Tribune blurb put it best: "Harper's music cuts across racial ... barriers, a universal vision at a time when pop music has never been more divided.")

Ben Harper passed through the South Bay earlier this year.

Crossover dreams aside, Ben Harper is a supremely gifted musician. Raised in what is known as California's Inland Empire region, Harper picked up the guitar at an early age, an act as natural as breathing considering that his grandfather was a luthier and grandma played guitar. Moms and pops were musicians as well. Harper's early listening experiences covered a lot of ground--everything from the classic blues of Son House and Robert Johnson to Ry Cooder's anthropologically correct folk ways; from Taj Majal's good-timey revisionism to Jimi Hendrix's extravagantly electric mojo working. Reggae (and not just Bob Marley) was in the house as well.

Like the field hollerers and other blues people that used to roam the southern portion of the United States just after black slavery, Harper possesses a voice whose ancestral origins can be traced back to West Africa and beyond. In fact, Harper's got a satchel full of singing personas; one moment he's crooning like a more urbane Taj Majal (a man who can tell you a thing or two about the black roots of this tradition); the next, he's yodeling like a Malian griot.

What is so remarkable is that Harper has already achieved such musical maturity at so young an age. And far from succumbing to the usual histrionics associated with precocity, Harper uses subtlety to make his point. Nor has he much use for technique for its own sake; his playing and singing work symbiotically to create moments of transcendence.

Ben Harper would be a unique talent if he just sang or penned his own material: All but one of Welcome to the Cruel World's songs were written by him. But his mastery of regulation acoustic and slide guitar makes his music doubly compelling. A cautionary note: Ben Harper kicked off his tours of duty in the South Bay at the Agenda Lounge. Then he opened for Luscious Jackson at the Edge. Now he's returned to the Palo Alto venue, only this time he's headlining. This may be one of the last occasions we'll get to see him at such close quarters.

Ben Harper plays Aug. 19 at 9pm at the Edge, 260 California Ave., Palo Alto. Tickets are $10 advance. (415/324-EDGE).

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From the August 15-21, 1996 issue of Metro

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