Folk, rock, blues and world music are all part and parcel of Ben singer-guitarist Harper's musical formula. But when it comes to playing plugged or unplugged, Harper is clearly two different animals.
Playing solo acoustic, as he did Monday at a private anniversary party for Seattle's Mountain radio station, Harper sounded like Cat Stevens cracking walnuts with his throat. His parched voice was clipped, sometimes guttural, but ultimately deft and affecting.
But when he goes electric, playing screaming slide leads on his quirky early-century lap guitar, he's Hendrix -- at least in spirit and volume, if not actual technique. The comparison was not lost on Jimi's hometown audience during his blistering performance Tuesday evening. Harper's long leads, of which there were many, drew cascades of approval.
Starting with the raucous "Faded" from his latest release, Will To Live, Harper delivered two hours of music that were at once contemporary and brimming with history. With his exceptionally powerful band -- bassist Juan Nelson, drummer Dean Butterworth and percussionist David Leech -- Harper had to pull from deep within himself to project his vocals over the collective din, but he succeeded most of the time. By night's end, Harper had touched on the delta blues during the rolling "Hopeless Child," taken a reggae road with the back-to-back "Burn One Down" and "Jah Work" and given a long, sensual nod to Marvin Gaye with "Sexual Healing." He dedicated "Will To Live" to Seattle school superintendent John Stanford, a much-respected local official, who has just been diagnosed with leukemia.
"I don't usually dedicate songs," Harper explained, "but I saw
this guy on the news last night, and he said he was going to beat
this thing and that he wasn't afraid of dying. I'm scared to death
of dying, so it was very, very powerful. I wish him well."
Throughout the show, Harper's playing was masterful and his sense of drama unfailing. At times he would bring the sound way down, lull the audience into a quiet trance and then snap them to attention with a hard-ground chord or cracking rim shot off Butterworth's snare. Nelson's bass solos were themselves worth the price of admission.
For the set-closing "I'll Rise," Harper abandoned his instrument and microphone and stood to sing; though unamplified, he could be clearly heard at the back of the house. For the encore "Voodoo Chile," a huge crowd favorite, his voice was buried, but his howling guitar work made up the difference, proving a proper homage to the original.
Some say Harper gets too preachy, and older works such as "Like A King," about Martin Luther King and Rodney King, might support that. But Harper is a young, passionate man, and there's ultimately a ring of truth to everything he does. Tonight, whether his principal instrument was his voice or his six-string, Harper stated his will to live with wrenching honesty.