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
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.