Feeding the Lifeline

20 09 2007

Ben Harper

By Derek Beres

I’ve had the pleasure of conducting over 400 artist interviews in my past fourteen years as a journalist. When you slide into questioner mode, there is usually little separation between you and the person interviewed. Some are much more descriptive and eloquent, while talking to others can be like pulling teeth to get anything more than single-word and -line responses. It’s all part of human nature. Oddly enough, in all of those years, there has only ever been one person that I was nervous talking to. The funny thing is, as life often has it, he was the person I least needed to be anxious around.

Perhaps it’s because his songs are that meaningful to me that I stumbled a bit talking to Ben Harper. This was in 1999, for the release of Burn to Shine, the first instance where he really started to create colors of country and Americana. (As primitive as the writing is to me, as a constant perfectionist, I keep it housed online.) Years later I would sit next to Ben and Jack Johnson in SoHo’s Hampton Chutney, disbelieving my eyes when two of my musical favorites ended up in the dosa hut I frequented daily. I had met Jack before, and shook Ben’s hand for the first time, not nearly as nervous as when we spoke on the phone five years prior. Still, as much as a “regular human” that he insists himself to be, and, from what I could tell, actually is, there is just something superhuman in his music. Or, best put, completely human.

It’s not in any way mystical, or out of this world, or any such nonsense. All this music is in his heart. His ability to open that organ to the rest of the planet is rare and inspiring. There’s tons of, as one song title goes, pleasure and pain in every moment. He does not differentiate between light and shadow; opening your heart, as much as we hope to think natural, takes a lot of courage, and faith, and discipline. You can’t do it once and think the beast is sated. Compassion is a practice, and takes practice to understand, and to offer to others. You can only be compassionate to others when you first learn to be so toward yourself.

No surprise that his latest, Lifeline, continues to wrench the heart. The lyrics and delivery of “Fool For A Lonesome Train” brings tears to the eyes, and the closing ballad, “Lifeline,” is soulful juggernaut that fans of “I Shall Not Walk Alone” and “Walk Away” will immediately memorize the lyrics to.

Below is a brief review I penned for Relix. At the time, I had to listen to it on an unreliable stream from the label that was low quality and kept freezing while I listened. When I asked the publicist at Virgin if he would send me a copy after it was released, knowing their constant fear of “stealing” and “leaking” music before it was released, he said of course. Unsurprisingly, it never came. What the labels have not, or refuse to, understand is that music will find its way, with or without their help.

BEN HARPER
Lifeline (Virgin)

Ben Harper sings, over and over, “If you put your heart into it” on the bluesy “Heart of Matters.” The man has put his own into 15+ years of recording some of the most inspirational and diverse music in America. Fans of the excellent Danny Clinch documentary, Pleasure & Pain, will recall Harper stating he doesn’t “try” to do anything musically; he merely plays what he feels. While Lifeline is blues-based and acoustic – nearly an expanded version of Both Sides of the Gun’s Disc One – he finds fuel on “Needed You Tonight” and gospel-hooks of “Put it On Me.” The harmonica on “Fool For a Lonesome Train” and piano-driven “Younger Than Today,” however, are agents of a mellower mood. By the time the album commences with an instrumental, “Paris Sunrise #7,” and the certifiably to-be-requested title track, Harper has led you on a journey of heartbreak and enduring love, with every moment worth revisiting.

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