The first thing you hear is a long sinuous wail. A young yet regal man is seated on the stage, bowed almost reverentially over his lap slide guitar, a big booming bass man by his side, surrounded by a swell of soulful yet thundering percussion. There’s a glow of gold, somehow, emanating from his strings, a light as ethereal and inexplicable as the man’s voice wavering above this glorious, funky, holy wall of sound.
When Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals arrived you knew it. Beginning with his solo first record, Welcome to the Cruel World, and then with the arrival of the Criminals on his second, Fight for Your Mind, Harper emerged as an artist possessing unusual musical and social force. Many strands coursed through Harper’s music and songwriting — Marvin Gaye, Maya Angelou, Bob Marley, Martin Luther King, Stevie Wonder, Robert Johnson and all blues history, Woody Guthrie and all American folk and rebel music — but the feeling upon first hearing it was one of beautiful inevitability. A new king, one who’d been tutored by a wild array of past kings, had not so much been anointed as prepared for this moment.
Harper grew up in a guitar shop in Claremont, California. It was called the Folk Music Center, and owned by his maternal grandparents, Charles and Dorothy Chase, who helped his mother Ellen — also a musician — raise Ben.
“They were of the generation that took in a stranger, picked up hitchhikers, and offered thanksgiving to anybody who would walk in the door,” Harper said in a recent interview on the brilliant Canadian music show, Q on CBC.
The Folk Music Center was founded in 1958 and became a musician’s mecca. Harper recalled the cast of characters who populated his childhood — Taj Mahal was a family friend, Jackson Browne a frequent visitor to the shop, string wizard David Lindley lived in town, and across three generations, his family was close with Pete Seeger and the entire Seeger clan, folk music royalty.
“What I remember was thinking that every kid’s family had a place as wild as this,” Harper said. “Every kid’s family, Ry Cooder would show up and start playing. Every kid’s family, Leonard Cohen walks into their living room…Leonard used to come because the Zen Center on Mount Baldy is at the top of the town, so when they would take a break from whatever monks do, he would find his way into the music store. I sat at their coattails and I would just follow them around like a puppy dog.”
Harper was also surrounded by instruments from all over the world, from ouds to dulcimers to the holy grail of slide guitars, a brand called Weissenborn that was manufactured in Los Angeles in the 1920s and 1930s. As a kid, Harper grew up brushing the strings of every guitar in the shop; as a teenager, under his grandfather’s tutelage, he became an expert at guitar repair; as a young man, he became a player to behold. His instrument of choice was the Weissenborn, and he wielded it like King Arthur’s sword, taking a fairly obscure guitar to places it had rarely been. He won a Grammy Awards for best pop instrumental performance and Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album (There Will Be a Light with the Blind Boys of Alabama, and another for Best Blues Album (Get Up! with blues harp player Charlie Musselwhite). He’s played with an astonishing array of artists, including Taj Mahal, Mavis Staples, Tom Morello, Toots and the Maytals, Ringo Starr, Willie Nelson, John Mayer, Pearl Jam and Jack Johnson. Just this month a single dropped, “Spin It Faster”, featuring Harper and Ziggy Marley — who appears at BeachLife with his brother Stephen singing their father’s songs the same day as Harper, meaning a jam is very likely in the works. “A blessing to jam with you my brother, looking forward,” Ziggy wrote on Harper’s Instagram, to which Ben replied, “Let’s go!”
Over 27 years and 16 albums, Harper has assembled a body of work with as much soul, sway, and socially conscious intent as anyone since the great Bob Marley. He began back in ‘94 with “I’ll Rise”, a song built on Maya Angelou’s defiant poem about Black America’s centuries-long determination to transcend a cruel history, and “Like a King”, which linked Dr. King with Rodney King. Both are still cuttingly relevant in the Black Lives Matter era. He is not surprised this is so.
“Because I saw it going on all the while, and nobody wants to talk about America’s race addiction,” Harper said. “…It’s an assault to the senses. We’re just so much better than to have to broker in Black and white.”
Yet Harper’s songs are ultimately about resilience, and as he returns to the stage post-pandemic, he does so with a renewed sense of hope.
“I’m hoping we return not to form but to an elevated sense of awareness that actually has staying power,” Harper said. “And appreciation for what was and what could be.”