Friday, April 10, 2009

The Gift - Ben Harper at Byron Bay, 1999

Reaching out for things in the dark.

It could be the definition of what an artist does when he sets out to make something.

It could be the sentiment at the 10th East Coast Blues and Roots Music Festival in Byron Bay, Australia, as a wild storm screams and expectations are desperately high for a musical force to free us from inclement misery.

It could be the American singer-guitarist Ben Harper leaving his 'demountable' dressing room and being drawn into a Ford Falcon parked nearby. A car door swings open as a journalist and a photographer decide to grab a lucky moment just one hour before he hits the stage. Harper hears us calling him, and quickly climbs on in with a bemused look on his face. I tell him, "We thought you might like something intimate."

Harper is the undisputed star of this festival, acclaimed with messiah-like fervor as a '90s mix of Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix and Marvin Gaye. The 28-year-old has the talent and the good looks to earn those comparisons, a tall lean black man with Native American bloodlines - part rock hero, part mystic with a guitar. Everybody seems to want a slice of him, but Harper holds back, bearing himself with princely self-possession, a politely intense wall that hides more than it exposes. Management repeat the mantra, "No interviews. No interviews. No."

The backseat of a big old car and a passing star glad for shelter on a stormy night are as good an interview set-up as we are ever going to get. Luck is on our side. It's surprising how receptive Harper is, remembering us from past encounters, communicating like we might almost be friends.

Two years ago at this same festival Harper seemed less focused, even a little angry. He admitted as much at the time when he said to me, " I played the worst concert of my life."

"You're definitely a different person at different stages in your life," Harper says tonight, "you really are."

We immediately start talking about growth - growth as an artist, growth as a man - and the way it all has to be in equilibrium. In these terms, Harper understands that his work "can be demanding". He also believes an artist's expression tests their personal integrity. If you can't be honest in your work, you can't be any good anywhere. At the same time, Harper says about the challenge of self-expression, "It makes me who I am. It gives me
sanity, it gives me balance."

He's uneasy about the wild weather beating down tonight and how the show will go. But I tell Harper about catching another storm-wracked open-air show of his at Glastonbury Music Festival in the U.K. back in 1998. That day I watched a group of three people with multiple sclerosis, all bogged deep up to the spokes of their wheelchairs in the thick English mud, waiting for Harper to begin. In those conditions we had all needed some inspiration. Harper kicked into a monumental cover of Hendrix's 'Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)', fully embodying the chorus line, "When I stand up next to a mountain, I chop it down with edge of my hand." The people in the wheelchairs started pulling themselves upward with excitement, rolling their tongues with joy, singing their inarticulate hearts out. It was a near-religious sight to behold: the music literally filled them up. And, as my girlfriend quietly pointed out later, imagine how much more it must have meant to them to see someone exude such power, all the while remaining seated in his chair.

On stage and in the studio, Harper favours the hunched posture of old bluesmen. He sits down to play out of necessity, having chosen as his signature instrument a1920s Weissenborn slide guitar, which was once upon a time the sounding board for jazzy Hawaiian groups of the swing era. You can still hear that faint wavelength in the sound, whether he's delivering soft ballads or supersonic slabs of contemporary r 'n' b jamming with his band The Innocent Criminals.

There's certainly a warmth in Harper's work, a faith most simply understood as something consistently uplifting. "Cool," he says, still the young skatepunk at heart as much as the new blues prince. "I'm a believer. I don't care what anybody says. It's something so far beyond my control I'm blessed to be a witness."

As for the adoration, "I don't put any pressure on myself and I don't allow that pressure." His use of the word 'allow' underlines a ferocity that is surprising in someone who usually puts a peace-loving face to the public. Harper tries to placate or cover that intensity when he goes on to say, with a rather strange mix of prophecy and modesty, "If I fall, I fall. I'll rise up like anybody else."

He's certainly been tested lately, after hitting walls in his music and within himself after three well-received, sometimes brilliant but ultimately underachieving recordings: Welcome To The Cruel World, Fight For Your Mind and The Will To Live. Harper's incandescent arrival on the music scene, and the fiery, sensual live shows that followed, have never really been caught on tape by his schoolboy buddy and regular producer J. P. Plunier. As a result, the Bob Marley revolutionary spirit in Harper's sound tends to be less well-known than the Tracey Chapman-like easy-listening studio version.

In many ways Harper has since become an artist of refinement rather than development. It's a troubling if exquisite cul-de-sac in which to dwell for a restless young man trying to shape roots music for a new millennium. He finds it difficult to speak about a new direction on the recording he is currently working on, the music that will become his latest CD, Burn To Shine. After playing lead guitar on Beth Orton's 'Stolen Car' and sampling George Michael's 'Freedom' for his own single 'Mama's Tripping', I tell him that I suspect we'll see more experimentation, more textures in his upcoming work. All Harper will say now is "it's intangible."

"What I can say is that it's not an abandonment of what we worked for as a sound today. I consider my first three records to be my first record really. And the next three will be my second. I don't think I've hit my stride yet."

Is there anything new he's written that electrifies him, that came to him like a bolt of light? He pauses for a long time as the rain beats down on the car roof close above us. Then he says, "A song called 'Alone'. It was like a gift."

Harper begins to recite the lyrics to an invisible beat. To tell me, and pull me in, as we sit in the backseat darkness of this old car. I get an odd feeling Harper is actually trying to give me something as he half speaks, half sings his new song: "This empty room, it fills my mind. Freedom - it leaves me confined. Every single bone has cracked. But in this life you can't turn back."

And with that Harper ends our interview to charge off through the rain and take center stage at Byron, where he will raise the roof and receive rapturous applause.

A few months later two things happen: his wife delivers their second child and his new CD Burn To Shine arrives on my doorstep. Harper seems to be moving on up in every way. A happy husband and father. A new CD that hungrily advances his usual mix of soul rock and folky electric blues, along with incongruous experiments like a Dixieland jazz track. But once again it's a mixed affair, part sweet wonder, part what's going on in his head? Burn To Shine is also affected by a curious unease, even rage, noticeable in songs like 'The Woman In You' ("The woman in you is the worry in me") and 'Less' ("If you're happy with nothing you'll be so very happy with me").

For me, though, it's the song 'Alone' gets the closest attention. And a lyric Harper neglected to recite that rainy night in Byron Bay, the punchline to the verse he gave me: "I don't want to live alone."

- Mark Mordue

* This story was first published in Madison magazine, New York, USA. November/December 1999.
= All photos by my good and very talented friend, the one and only Gerald Jenkins: