Life Lesson: Ben Harper learns from collaboration with Blind Boys of Alabama
Ryan Summerlin March 21, 2006
The first intersection of the Blind Boys of Alabama, an ancient gospel group led by septuagenarian singer Clarence Fountain, and Ben Harper, a spiritually leaning rocker some 40 years Fountain’s junior, was a mere brush.On their 2001 CD “Spirit of the Century,” the Blind Boys included a version of “Give a Man a Home,” which Harper had written for his second album, 1995’s “Fight For Your Mind.” A year later, the relationship got somewhat more serious; the Blind Boys’ 2002 album, “Higher Ground,” not only featured a cover of Harper’s “I Shall Not Walk Alone,” the closing tune from his 1997 CD “The Will to Live,” but the musician himself. Harper, billed as a special guest, added vocals to a take on Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” and guitar to several tracks.
The Blind Boys then asked Harper if he would produce an album by the band. Harper was so agreeable that the project turned into 2004’s “There Will Be a Light,” a full CD not only produced by Harper, but also largely written by him and featuring members of his band, the Innocent Criminals. “There Will Be a Light,” credited to both Harper and the Blind Boys, earned the Grammy Award for best traditional soul gospel album. The collaboration culminated with last year’s release of “Live at the Apollo,” a DVD documenting an October 2004 concert at the famed Harlem theater, featuring both acts.The relationship seems to have taken a respite. “Atom Bomb,” last year’s album by the Blind Boys, sported neither songs nor sounds of Harper’s. But for Harper, who plays a sold-out two-night stand at the Belly Up this Sunday and Monday, the influence isn’t about to fade anytime soon.”It was a huge deal, a huge musical discovery that became life lessons learned,” said Harper, speaking by phone from a Santa Barbara radio studio, of working with the Blind Boys. “You can’t return from having an experience like that. The Blind Boys are truly the deepest well of American musical heritage you can discover.”Harper says those lessons were put to use on his new double-CD, “Both Sides of the Gun.” Released last week, it is his first CD since “There Will Be a Light.”
Specifically, Harper says that the new album benefits from the Blind Boys’ let-‘er-rip method of recording. Harper says he wasn’t too concerned that he had gotten away from a more primal approach to making music. But “Diamonds on the Inside,” his 2001 CD, was a step toward refining his sound, and Harper acknowledges that “it was certainly time to return to form.””The Blind Boys record was a reminder about discovering a song in the moment – and not over-discovering it,” continued the 36-year-old singer and guitarist, who first discovered music in the roots record store his parents owned in Claremont, Calif., in the Inland Empire east of Los Angeles. “I wanted to make it a more visceral record than cerebral. It’s mostly one or two takes, and then get out of the way.”That’s the way we made the Blind Boys record, raw and untrained and rediscovering the heart and soul of the music. I hope it has the immediacy of that approach.””Both Sides of the Gun” wastes no time in revealing that spirit. “Better Way,” the lead track on the second disc, hearkens back to Harper’s first two albums, with a rootsy folk-soul vibe. Harper’s vocals, which start out unpolished, actually reach the point of an unrestrained scream on the lines “Reality is sharp / It cuts at me like a knife.” Earlier, Harper might have cut such jagged rawness; here it is front and center. Similarly, on “Engraved Invitation,” Harper’s guitar line is all over the place, wild and, yes, visceral. “Please Don’t Talk About Murder While I’m Eating,” with a blues-gospel feel, seems a direct sonic descendant of “There Will Be a Light.” You almost expect the Blind Boys to step in with vocal harmonies on the chorus.
One aspect of “Both Sides of the Gun” that Harper did reflect on was the decision to split the album into two halves. At approximately 65 minutes, “Both Sides of the Gun” could fit on one disc. Instead, it is divided into the generally quiet “Morning Yearning,” and the funkier, more band-driven “Better Way.”Giving “Both Sides of the Gun” two faces seemed a natural for a singer who has been discovering the multifarious tones of his voice. Cramming it onto one disc, said Harper, “would have been creatively the wrong move. As my voice has expanded into different directions, oddly enough, I’ve gotten more confident in that voice. And I saw that those voices didn’t fit into one disc.”It also seems a natural for an artist like Harper to split himself in two. Since emerging with 1994’s “Welcome to the Cruel World,” Harper has flashed various sides. His voice can be so fragile it seems on the verge of cracking, as on “I Want to Be Ready,” from “The Will to Live.” It screams on the title track from “Burn to Shine.” Harper’s best-known tunes range in content from the breezy “Steal My Kisses” to the finger-pointing “Excuse Me Mr.” to the devotional “Like a King.” A dazzling instrumentalist – whose primary instrument is the Weissenborn, an acoustic lap-slide guitar – Harper moves comfortably between folklike acoustic and electric-funk realms. His live recording, “Live From Mars,” is broken up into solo and band discs.”That’s fair enough,” said Harper in response to the notion that embodied a split personality, “in the sense that you’re going to come from different perspectives, different attitudes, different wants and needs. Black and white. Sometimes you get shot, sometimes you do the shooting. Night and day.” Or, as he puts it on “Engraved Invitation”: “Some days I’m the Lord’s servant / Some days I’m Satan’s pawn.”
On “Both Sides of the Gun,” Harper finds even more personalities. “The Way You Found Me,” for instance, moves along at a jazzed-up boogie rhythm, and uses a chorus of female vocalists. “Black Rain” utilizes a string quartet. The album also finds Harper expanding his backing ensemble; the current tour features a five-piece version of the Innocent Criminals, which began years ago as a three-man rhythm section.And sometimes, Harper follows a more consistent route. The direction he’s gone since crossing paths with the Blind Boys of Alabama (who have a date of their own, July 1 in Snowmass Village) is only upward.”Working with the Blind Boys, they never spoke about it. But there was an unspoken insistence that I elevate my game,” he said. “It was out of necessity that I raise my voice. It was a requirement.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org