Selected by Dan Grunebaum
There' classic rock, and
then there's classy rock. Young American Ben Harper may never be inducted into the
rock Hall of Fame occupied by hallowed rock figures such as Clapton and Dylan. But he
certainly does produce classy music, whipping up oh-so-tasty confections of folk, blues,
rock, reggae and soul that pay tribute to classic rock, without being overly derivative.
Harper may not possess the genius of a Clapton or a Dylan, but he's so damn talented that
his upcoming Tokyo shows will surely be among the highlights of this spring's concert
Born fittingly in 1969 - the year of Woodstock - Ben Harper was reared in a family of
musicians: his father plays drums and his mother, guitar and vocals. Growing up, Harper
was exposed to a spectrum of sounds ranging from the blues of Taj Mahal to the folk of
Dylan to the reggae of Bob Marley, all figures whose influences can be heard in his songs.
Favoring the distinctive Weissenborn slide guitar, built in the '20s, Harper debuted with Welcome
to the Cruel World in 1994. Amid the sameness of third-generation classic rockers like
the Black Crowes, Harper's eccentric instrumentation and vocal style stood out. He also
didn't shy away from politics, referring to the black struggle in songs like "Like A
King" about Martin Luther King and Rodney King.
Harper's second album, Fight For Your Mind, was a revelation to this writer - a
welcome reminder that despite 30 years having passed since the death of Hendrix, areas of
blues rock still remain to be explored.
With his third album, The Will to Live, Harper traded in his acoustic for an
electric guitar, and also introduced his fine touring band, The Innocent Criminals. 1999's
Burn to Shine was his most successful album yet, landing him a headlining world
tour and opening slots for the Dave Matthews Band, REM and Radiohead.
Harper's intelligent alternative to Lenny Kravitz's chest-baring retro-rock has also
earned him a loyal following in Japan, meaning his two Liquid Room shows are likely to
Harper plays Shinjuku Liquid Room on June 16-17. See listings for details.