Ben There, Done That
Ben Harper on why he's not-so-secretly always been a bluesman
By Curtis Cartier
UNDOUBTEDLY there was some head-scratching when the name "Ben Harper and Relentless7" appeared atop the lineup for this year's Santa Cruz Blues Festival. A man who's sold millions of records thanks to reggae-inflected acoustic hits like "Burn One Down" and "Jah Work," Harper is often written off as mellow indie it-boy by old-school rock and blues fans raised on B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Buddy Guy. But those people obviously haven't heard his newest records.
On White Lies for Dark Times and the just-released concert recording Live From the Montreal International Jazz Festival, Harper and his newly formed four-piece band, led by longtime friend and guitarist Jason Mozersky, play crushing blues rock that borrows from at least a dozen other acts that have graced the SCBF stage over the years. Santa Cruz Weekly tracked Harper down ahead of his May 29 gig (the festival continues on May 30) and asked him when, exactly, he became the hottest thing to hit the blues since adultery.
"Art at its most sincere requires change and growth, and the blues has always been such a heavy foundation of what I've put forward," says Harper in a voice so pleasantly enunciated it almost sounds like a song itself. "Clearly it was time for me to grow into the specific sound that I achieved through this nucleus. Creatively you can never deny what you're supposed to be."
History suggests that Harper was always "supposed to be" a musician. What kind of musician has been the question. A native of Claremont, Calif., Harper grew up surrounded by sounds and art through his family's music store and venue, the now-famous Folk Music Center. With an African American father, a Jewish mother and Russian and Lithuanian grandparents, his house was an artistic and cultural melting pot where he learned not only how to play instruments but how to build them, fix them and make a living with them.
At some point along the way he discovered the lap steel guitar. And though he's equally famous for his acoustic and electric guitar work, the image of a grimacing Harper perched atop a stool and hammering down on a steel guitar is one that many fans over the years have come to associate with his music.
"My connection [to the lap steel guitar] is the kind of connection that you don't know why it's there, but your life wouldn't be the same without it. That was the sound that just informed me on the deepest level of how I was supposed to sound," he says. "And through David Lindley's playing and Ry Cooter and Lowell George and Duane Allman and all the early Delta cats—Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell and Son House—they all helped me find the sound that's taken my whole life to develop."
BACKSTAGE BOYS: Harper in post-show mode with bassist Jesse Ingalls (left), guitarist Jason Mozersky (center) and drummer Jordan Richardson.
Music and Message
Harper has never been content to limit himself only to music. A devoted activist who champions immigrant rights, ocean stewardship, freedom of speech and the antiwar movement, he's been involved with the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org since 2004 and also supports the ecologically minded Surfrider Foundation and Living Lands and Waters, as well as the anti-nuclear power group No Nukes and the food distributing organization Feeding America. His latest endeavor is with the nonprofit group Lift. On its website www.liftcommunities.org, the organization states that its mission is to "combat poverty and expand opportunity for all people in the United States." With centers in Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., Harper says the group's volunteers train people to do everything from filling out government aid applications to finding free medical clinics to putting together résumés and providing actual on-the-job training.
"Lift maximizes the potential of the American system," says Harper. "They break down the barriers of intimidation as far as getting what can help people progress, especially in the area of job training. I've been donating monetarily and with my time and it will be my focus for the next number of years."
On White Lies, Harper immediately dives into politics with the opening track "Number With No Name," a blistering rock jam with an antiwar message. "A casket lined with silver dollars and a number with no name," sings Harper over the distortion-rich yowl of his lap steel.
Elsewhere on the album, Harper touches on violence and compassion, writing in "The Word Suicide," that "The word suicide is irresponsible/ Still you offered to buy me a gun/ What's so hard about sympathy?"
Still, his work with Relentless7 may be his most apolitical to date, with the majority of the songs showcasing raw rock and blues chops with classic themes on love, hate, sex and emotion—traditional blues fare if ever it existed.
A MAN'S WORLD: The only blueswoman to take the stage at this year's festival, Susan Tedeschi plays Sunday with her husband, former Allman Brothers slide guitar-shredder Derek Trucks.
Those who look closely next Saturday might spot a rather nervous-looking Harper peeking from the side of the stage at the opening acts. Not that he can't hold his own with any rock musician on tour today, but the Santa Cruz Blues Festival lineup this year not only includes musicians like Buddy Guy that Harper says have influenced him for years, but acts that he knows on a very personal level.
Henry Saint Clair Fredericks, a.k.a. Taj Mahal, for example, will be warming up the stage before Harper. The 67-year-old bluesman—besides working in bands like the Rising Sons and the Phantom Blues Band—played a big part in Harper's early success when he invited the younger musician on his tour and later recorded Follow the Drinking Gourd, a blues-and-folk-centered album based on a traditional story about African Americans escaping slavery. To say Harper thinks highly of Taj Mahal would be a gross understatement.
"Taj is the number one greatest musician on the planet. Period. End of story," says Harper matter-of-factly. "Taj and I traversed the planet together and we find each other at different ends of the bill. The best part about it is I get to be inspired by him beforehand, which will make me play better. It's also daunting; I mean, he's really just the baddest cat in the world, so it's like, 'Good luck.' We'll probably come full circle again and see each other at a different point soon."
Harper says he'll also be watching the Saturday afternoon set of Joseph Arthur, who he calls a "true pioneer."
"Over the course of a decade, Joseph has been the most consistent lyricist," he says of the young musician known for combining electronic effects with traditional sounds. "Every record, whether it's the [Lonely] Astronauts or his solo work, he keeps coming up with these chord changes that I think I should be familiar with, but each time it sounds like I'm hearing them for the first time. He's just always so fresh and exciting."
By nearly all accounts, Ben Harper and Relentless7 have earned the spot atop the SCBF bill. Though he doesn't have the strict blues history of a Buddy Guy or a Taj Mahal, Harper has every bit the skill and all the passion it takes to be a respected blues act. Don't expect it to be his final progression, however, as Harper says he'll never stop experimenting with his sound.
"There's a dream list that I put in front of myself," he says. "You know, I'd love to play some slide guitar on the next Jay-Z record, I'd love to sing with Crosby, Stills & Nash, I'd love to pen a song with Paul Simon. This is just dreaming out loud, and that can be dangerous. Ask me again when I'm 50 and we'll see where we are on the list then."
BEN HARPER AND RELENTLESS7 play Saturday, May 29, as part of the Santa Cruz Blues Festival, which runs May 29–30 at Aptos Village Park, 100 Aptos Creek Road. Two-day tickets are $140 and single-day tickets are $75 each. For more information and a complete schedule visit www.santacruzbluesfestival.com
WHAT A GUY: Buddy Guy headlines Sunday's show at Aptos Village Park on Memorial Day weekend.
Buddy Guy, Derek Trucks highlight the rest of SCBF
By Curtis Cartier
BILL WELCH is a tall, gray-goateed music nut known for breaking into a sweat when talking about a good guitar player or horn blower—and for booking around 300 shows every year at his club, Moe's Alley. But just in case the locals forget about the steady stream of talent running through his club, in his spare time Welch and his staff also throw together Santa Cruz County's biggest music showcase, the Santa Cruz Blues Festival.
Graced by such titanic names as B.B. King, Pinetop Perkins, John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles and Bonnie Raitt, the two-day blues and rock bonanza at Aptos Village Park has been going strong since 1993. This year, besides the great Ben Harper and his rocking new band, the Relentless7 (see story, page 11), the festival is headlined Sunday by three-time SCBF topper and Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy. For Welch, Guy represents everything good and right in the world of Windy City music.
"Buddy Guy is a musician that is the who's who. He's truly at the top of his game," says Welch. "He and B.B. King are really the biggest connections to the old world of blues that are left around."
The other eight acts on the weekend's bill could be—and often are—headliners in their own right. Eric Lindell, the New Orleans soul maestro who never seems far from a Neville, kicks off the weekend early on Saturday with big and bad party blues. Next, as if on cue, Ivan Neville (Aaron's son and nephew of the "Brothers'") and his band Dumpstaphunk turn the funk dial up to dangerous heights and bass-heavy lows.
With the third slot, the pace slows down a bit as soft-spoken folk and blues indie poet Joseph Arthur croons out his crossroads lament. Finally, around dusk, Henry Saint Clair Fredericks, better known as Taj Mahal, will heat up the stage for Ben Harper with his brand of Grammy Award–winning Caribbean, African and Pacific Island-influenced blues.
"Saturday is an awesome day from front to back," says Welch. "You've got big New Orleans funk and blues, you've got some different acts like Joseph Arthur and you've got seasoned guys like Taj that actually used to be in Ben Harper's band. And of course, Ben Harper himself, whose new band is just totally rockin' blues—just our style."
On Sunday, famed producer Don Was (see: Stones, Rolling and Raitt, Bonnie) and his crew of deep soul and funk practitioners known as Was (Not Was) belt out a big-horn awakening to those still recovering from too many beers and ribs on Saturday. And no Santa Cruz Blues Festival lineup would be complete without the next act, one Coco Montoya. The 10-time SCBF guest is the "embodiment of what we try and do with this festival," according to Welch, and he'll be showcasing classic rockin' blues in all its amp-blasting glory.
Once Coco finishes up, the action jumps the pond when bonafied '60s British Invasion representatives Eric Burdon & the Animals take the stage to rip some boogie-friendly blues rock and—who knows—maybe a rendition of the perennial hit "House of the Rising Sun." With the crowd in full swing, up next is the baby-faced member of the Allman Brothers Band, Derek Trucks and his bride Susan Tedeschi, the only festival performer that boasts two X chromosomes. Described by the Wall Street Journal as "the most awe-inspiring electric slide guitar player performing today," Trucks should fully test the electrical capabilities of Welch's hand-built sound system. Finally, the great Buddy Guy closes things down with all the reasons that he influenced everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Eric Clapton to Angus Young and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Besides the music, festivalgoers can look forward to some great eats from food booths serving barbecue, Asian and Southern-style home food from caterers around the Central Coast and Bay Area. Cash is no good inside the festival gates, however, so make sure and trade your dollars for paper "tickets," that, while useless outside the festival, may at least remind you of all the fun you used to have at Chuck E. Cheese. Also note that lawn chairs and blankets rule at the show, so if you plan on sitting and relaxing anywhere in the middle-front section of the crowd, you'd better come early and stake out a spot.
For Welch and the rest of the Moe's Alley staff, months of planning are finally coming to a head. Soon they'll all be able to go back to their day jobs booking blues, reggae and hip-hop acts nearly every day at their club. But for the 3,000 fans who should be showing up each day to party, they needn't worry about how a small club staff pulls off a multiday festival. Their only job is to sit back, relax, crack a beverage and enjoy some of the finest blues and American roots music ever assembled in a single location.
"It's one of the best and most unique festivals anywhere in the country," says Welch. "It's really made a name for itself and I think this year is one of the best so far."
For more information and a complete schedule visit www.santacruzbluesfestival.com.
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