Live From Mars
Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals
The road is where things have always happened for Ben Harper. It is where he lives more than 200 days out of the year, rolling from town to town with his band, the Innocent Criminals, steadily building an audience for his mixture of blues and rock and folk and soul. The sound can be fiery or contemplative, built on delicate acoustic trimmings or raging feedback, with self-explanatory titles like "Welcome to the Cruel World" and "Please Bleed." Raw emotions, deeply felt. And the crowd is always there for them.
Harper learned years ago that it was a personal connection from the stage that offered the most profound experience for him, not chart action. "There is a certain level of accomplishment that is measured by the number of people who hear your music, or buy your music even," Harper has said. "But we've never bought into that. And it's been for the good that it's happened the way that it's happened, the way it's grown one person at a time, word of mouth. I'm able to thoroughly enjoy and appreciate and taste every step that this music takes. It's been a ton of work, and I'd rather be doing nothing else."
The feeling is mutual among fans. After a concert the scene is always the same. Standing by the tour bus will be the usual crowd of hardcore followers, a few of whom will invariably ask: "When are you going to do a live album?"
Which is a fair question since the road is where Harper has always found an audience, beginning at his very first gigs in the late-'80s on the tiny stage of Nick's Cafe back home in Claremont, California. And it's no different now in the vast amphitheaters of America and Europe and Asia. Harper sits at the front of the stage and picks up his beloved Weissenborn acoustic guitar and lays it across his lap. Or he reaches for a Gibson electric, or maybe one of those double-necked guitars Jimmy Page used to play. And from there Harper and the Innocent Criminals -- bassist Juan Nelson, drummer Dean Butterworth, and percussionist David Leach -- find the groove, whether that means rocking out or reaching back to the Mississippi Delta. It is a scene now captured on Live From Mars, a double-album of live tracks collected from the last two years of heavy touring.
A song is never finished. Original studio versions of Harper's songs are just rough drafts to be worked and re-worked through years of trial and error. So while the songs on Live From Mars will be at once familiar to fans of the original studio versions, there is new fire here, an energy that can only be found in front of an audience. On Harper's 1995 album Fight For Your Mind, the song "Ground On Down" already raged with high-octane slide guitar work. But on stage the song erupts with the renewed purpose and anxiety, like Hendrix drenched in the Delta. An edgy blend of funk and rock and the real folk blues rages through "The Woman In You" (from 1999's Burn To Shine). Even the beats and guitar passages of the otherwise contemplative "Glory & Consequence" (from 1997's The Will To Live) crackles with a touch of Crazy Horse.
Not that Harper has abandoned the more delicate side of his music on Live From Mars. His roots as a folk player are well-represented by "Waiting On An Angel" and the haunted "Welcome To The Cruel World," both originally recorded for his 1993 debut. The music is gentle on the surface but unyielding in its message, closing the live album with the uplifting "I'll Rise," its lyrics taken from a Maya Angelou poem.
Elsewhere on Live From Mars, Harper and the Innocent Criminals find time to pay tribute to their own musical heroes. Harper slides into the Marvin Gaye 1982 hit "Sexual Healing" with an appropriate edge of classic soul. The Innocent Criminals then stretch out Harper's otherworldly "Faded," only to suddenly erupt with a thundering take on Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love." More obscure, though no less heartfelt, is the band's version of "The Drugs Don't Work" by the Verve. (Harper had listened to the Verve's Urban Hymns album obsessively throughout 1999.) Listeners will understand.
No two crowds are alike. Not New York and Los Angeles. Not Chicago and Miami. Nor Tokyo, Paris, Cleveland, Sydney, Dallas or Santa Barbara. In Northern California alone, Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals can find young organic hippie multitudes in Santa Cruz, a college/skater crowd in San Jose, or a multicultural cross-section in San Francisco. Harper finds a connection with all of them. And in a break from traditional live albums, Live From Mars collects only the very best moments from the road, with no two tracks taken from the same concert. The location is a mystery, hence the title. Welcome to Mars. The release of Live From Mars hardly marks the end to Harper's traveling days. He will remain on the road at least through the Summer of 2001, with stops across the U.S., Australia and Asia. The road goes on forever. It's where Ben Harper seems to belong.