It’s after 11 p.m. on a Sunday in Milan, Italy, and Ben Harper is still taking press calls from his hotel room.
In Europe, where sales of his politically charged new album, “Fight for Your Mind,” are approaching gold, Harper is a rising reggae/blues star.
But back in the United States, the 26-year-old slide guitarist’s popularity still is most intense on college campuses, which he’ll hit as he begins a West Coast tour this week. The California native performs with his band The Innocent Criminals in Moscow, Idaho, on Monday and in Spokane on Tuesday.
In Europe and at home, Harper’s blend of funk, folk, jazz and reggae connects with a broad cross-section of listeners - from skateboard punks and hip-hop fans to the generation that grew up on Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley.
“I think that’s because the music is clear and really easy to understand,” Harper says of his diverse following. “It’s not complicated or too overstated or tricky.”
That simplicity lends his music a timeless style, which he successfully combines with sincere lyrics about life, love and society’s injustices.
Harper’s newest release from Virgin Records is diverse, from the heavily electronic “Excuse Me Mr.” (an open letter to the world’s oppressors) to the unabashed love song “Gold To Me” or his haunting ballad “Another Lonely Day.”
Harper’s pro-hemp reggae anthem “Burn One Down” is popular among the college crowd, while “The Power of Gospel” could be a Sunday school hymn.
The creative impulses that spark his songwriting are difficult to pinpoint, Harper says. Musical stimuli often arrive fragile and unexpected, “from life, people, the earth, the almighty, just about anything.”
“When inspiration comes, you just put everything else aside and get to it,” he says.
Critics admire Harper’s “moral fire,” and though he admits strong convictions, he insists the political messages are personal expressions of his beliefs, not calls to action.
“I don’t want to put that pressure on the audience to have to find a morality. If you find that and feel where I’m coming from, then that’s great. I have a strong feeling in my heart, and that I can indicate through song.”
Those strong feelings benefit from Harper’s resolute spirituality, which he sings openly of in his song “God-Fearing Man.”
“I have deep faith and appreciation for a divine guidance that I feel I have,” Harper says.
While he’s shown on his album cover praying at an altar, Harper cringes at the mention of organized religion.
“Anyone who claims religion brings them closer to God than anyone else is a hypocrite. My faith is an open faith.”
Harper has appeared with Lucious Jackson, Pearl Jam, John Lee Hooker and Ray Charles, but he gives his Weissenborn credit for most of his musical inspiration. The hollow-neck acoustic lap guitar he plays was made only in the 1920s and ‘30s.
“When I heard the Weissenborn, the sound of it just pulled me in,” Harper says. “It spoke to me the loudest and opened up my creativity.”
On stage, Harper and The Innocent Criminals allow for improvisation as the “musical moment” presents itself in performance, he says. Every show’s taken seriously, be it in Milan or Missoula.
“Each time we play, we attempt to do it the best we’ve ever done,” Harper says. “That’s the best way to really grow musically is playing live and attempting your best shot every time.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: CONCERT Ben Harper and The Innocent Criminals will play in the University of Idaho Sub Ballroom on Monday and at The Met in Spokane on Tuesday. Both shows start at 8 p.m. Tickets to the UI show are $15.75, available at Ticket Express, G&B; Select-a-Seat outlets or call (800) 325-SEAT. Spokane show - they’re $15, available at Recorded Memories and G&B.;
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