When I mentioned to a music industry friend that Ben Harper was about to unveil a live album, she shot back the following email regarding Harper’s record company: ”They’re trying to take a page out of the ‘Peter Frampton Behind the Music’ and attempting to create ‘Harper Comes Alive.’ A couple of mildly successful albums, well known for live performance, and great hair.” I couldn’t have put it better myself, except to make a few additional comparison points: Both men share a fondness for electric and unplugged formats, both albums are double discs, and, like ”Frampton Comes Alive!,” Harper’s Live From Mars is ideal for the hardcore fans as well as the uninitiated who may want to investigate what all the fuss is about.
That fuss has been fairly low key, but it’s been a fuss nonetheless. Over the course of eight years and four albums, the black Southern Californian has built a staunch following, the same sort of politically minded, hacky sack tossing crowd that follows around the Dave Matthews Band and frequents anti-WTO rallies; you can hear them shouting ”I love you!” throughout ”Live From Mars,” which was taped at various venues over the last few years. I’ve attended a few of those concerts myself and have generally left feeling ambivalent. Harper sang gentle, wide eyed ballads that recalled Cat Stevens (his ”Welcome to the Cruel World” is ”Wild World” for a new generation) or played what seemed like endless jam band workhorses with his trio, the Innocent Criminals. The lack of overall visceral excitement was exacerbated by the fact that Harper usually remains seated, his guitar on his lap. Cat Stevens, pre-Muslim makeover, was able to pull that off, but Harper simply came across as static.
Consequently, my own expectations for ”Live From Mars” were not quite mountain high. But what do you know: Simply listening to a Harper concert turns out to be far more impressive an experience than attending one. On disc one — the ”electric” portion, with the Innocent Criminals — Harper is the retro rocker Lenny Kravitz has always tried, but failed, to be. Harper’s roots are exposed for all to see (he slips a bit of ”Whole Lotta Love” into his own greased up ”Faded”), but he’s far less self conscious than Kravitz, and he doesn’t come across like a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibit come to life the way Kravitz does. An uneasy sense of déjà vu hangs over his rock blues compounds, but they rarely sound fusty or ersatz. His slide guitar burns with foot to the floor intensity, making early songs like ”Glory and Consequence” grimier than their comparatively genteel studio versions. The ”Mom’s gay” story song ”Mama’s Got a Girlfriend Now” and the chicken scratch guitar and frisky humor of ”Steal My Kisses” effectively lighten the mood.
The second disc is devoted entirely to Harper’s solo performances. Both his singing and melodies have a calming, Zen like quality, and his unaccompanied guitar can be entrancing. On songs like ”Walk Away,” where you literally feel his pain as he says his last goodbye to someone he can never have, he communicates resigned dignity without mawkishness. You also have to give him credit for making a hokey lyric (and title) like that of ”Power of the Gospel” jump alive with a hypnotic fervor.
But as a folkie, Harper has a limited range, which the second half of ”Live” makes clear. Whether he’s singing his own songs, like ”Roses From My Friends,” or offering up a sullen cover of the Verve’s ”The Drugs Don’t Work,” the performances meld into a mellow folk blues blur. (His vaguely political songs don’t storm the gates so much as lean on them a little.) For nonconverts, ”Live From Mars” has some revelatory moments, but it also would have made a fine single disc — which, come to think of it, is what many of us thought of ”Frampton Comes Alive!” a quarter century ago.