I began blogging in March of 2007 on my since scuttled MySpace page, and since the website was geared toward music, so were my posts. My first post was titled “The Music of Teen Angst”, and became the foundation and structure for what would ultimately become a chapter in my book Lifting a Foot Forward.
The post, in brief, discussed my evolution as a music lover, from my childhood listening to Barry Manilow in the back seat of my parent’s car, to the early days of rap until I finally found my sonic salvation: Reggae. And no, it wasn’t about the subculture. It was, and still is, about the music. I occasionally come upon people who are surprised that a white kid from suburbia could be so knowledgeable about Afro-Jamaican music that originated in the rough and tumble streets of Kingston. Some are even shocked to hear me explain how universal reggae’s message is. Some people.
But growing up in Claremont it never seemed that unique that I liked reggae music. In fact, it never seemed strange that music was such an important part of my life. My hometown continues to be a community built from a mix of strict conservative government and liberally conscious universities, the Claremont Colleges. Somehow the dynamic works, and for the most part that dynamic facilitates the growth and development of a socially diverse and aware culture.
One product of that diverse culture is musical artist Ben Harper.
To say Ben is a singer and songwriter and musician is to say that the three elements of his craft might be separate from one another at any one time. They aren’t. He is a multi-instrumentalist in every sense of the word, a by-product of diversity in his home and his grandparent’s local store, The Folk Music Center. Music is in his blood. The man is an artist.
Ben Harper has been steadily building an amazing body of work for the past twenty years. As a teenager he learned to play the slide guitar so he could play the blues like his hero Robert Johnson. His early gigs caught the attention of legendary bluesman Taj Mahal, so much so that the elder statesman invited the young Harper on tour with him. As Ben says, it began his trip around the world.
Blues, folk, rock, pop, soul. The list goes on. Take a look at Harper’s catalogue and he seems almost restless, each album a break from the last in terms of genre. But the common thread is his voice. Pure and often times, haunting. He bleeds with every note.
In doing some research on Tuesday, I went to Harper’s website. There on the front page was the announcement he was playing a show the following night at the renowned Bridges Auditorium on the campus of Pomona College, in the heart of the Claremont Colleges.
I’ve been wanting to see him live for years. I’m a homer for live shows, as my early blog posts can attest. I’m also a homer for the city I grew up in, and so the opportunity to see my fellow Claremont brethren perform an acoustic set at one of the most incredible venues in Southern California was like the perfect storm of opportunity. Sandra was all in, and the stage was set.
Ben Harper, live at Bridges Auditorium, November 6th, 2013.
The venue was as historic and beautiful as I remember. The stage was set with a piano, guitars, microphone equipment and amplifiers and a single chair. Hanging in front of the curtain at the rear of the stage where nine wooden pictures of folk music carvings, the same as those found hanging inside the Harper family owned Folk Music Center just a few blocks away. And even with the auditorium’s 2500 seating capacity and our last minute tickets near the back row, the setting seemed intimate.
When Harper took the stage to a roaring applause, he grabbed a banjo from its stand, sat in the chair center stage and the lights dimmed to a single spotlight. He proceeded to jam an instrumental song for nearly five minutes. The audience was entranced. He switched instruments, sat back down and spoke a little. He then played another song, filling the nearly perfect acoustics of the room with is soulful, haunting voice.
For me, a good deal of Harper’s songs are of struggle. There are songs of love and hope, but I think his true love of blues music continues to pull him back to the struggle that is everyday life, and one would be challenged to find anyone who expresses that struggle better than Harper. His vocals range from high to low, but he spends most of his time in the high range. His tone and quality are pure. In his calls to action and songs of hope like “My Own Two Hands”, the sound of his voice was pleading and assuring. On songs of defiance like “Burn One Down” his voice offered a steady voice of wisdom to lyrics that other artists couldn’t offer with such sincerity.
It’s in the songs of loss that for me Harper truly shines. On “Roses from My Friends”, Harper’s voice penetrated every deep emotion inside of us all. This was what pain sounds like.
On a performance level we witnessed a professional who not only knows who he is, but is unapologetically comfortable with it. As well he should be. In an industry that seems to trip over itself with style over substance, Harper remains true to what inspires him, and speaks to audiences. During the encore it was a treat to watch as he invited his mom out on stage, as she grabbed a guitar and together they performed two songs from a duet album they recorded, to be released on Mother’s Day 2014. His show was filled with wonderfully funny and interesting stories of his history with the city, his family and his music.
I can cross of Ben Harper Live from my “To Do” list, but that’s not to say I won’t ever see him again. I plan to, but until then this night will rank high as one of my favorite shows. How could it not? Ben Harper performing in Claremont, with my beautiful wife by my side to share the experience. Perfect.
It was truly special, a night to remember.