No Spring Fling artist in recent memory has garnered as many simultaneous boos, cheers and who-the-hell-is-thats than Ben Harper, who will bring his trademark blend of blues, folk and soul to Old Campus in a little over a week.
Ever since the release of his critically acclaimed debut album, “Welcome to the Cruel World,” in 1994, Harper has managed to fly inconspicuously under the mainstream pop radar while still managing to cultivate a devoted fan base that allows him to sell out large concert venues throughout the country. It is from these live shows that he draws the material for his latest release, “Live From Mars,” a double CD that mixes covers (including an uninspired take on Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”) with material from his first four albums.
“Live From Mars,” like Harper himself, suffers from a case of split personality. His material wavers between raucous, Hendrix-inspired rock anthems and light, acoustic folk ballads, a dichotomy that leaves the listener feeling a little unsettled. The two styles occasionally collide, creating a bizarre sonic collage by layering Harper’s delicate falsetto on top of crunching metal riffs. At his best, Harper can be positively inspiring, as shown in the album’s incredible opening track, “Glory & Consequence.” At his worst, his songs drone on annoyingly like a bad Ani DiFranco album (or a good one, for that matter).
The album has its merits, however. Most of its high points come in the performances of Harper’s better-known singles like “Steal My Kisses” and the college anthem “Burn One Down.” These songs reveal a precision and conciseness missing in the meandering jams of many Harper tunes. “Live From Mars” also is able to recreate the feeling and excitement of a live show, which is elusive in the concert recordings of most bands. The intimacy between Harper and his audience is very evident on the album; slip-ups like Harper’s voice cracking add to the urgency and realness of the moment.
With “Live From Mars,” Ben Harper offers to the record buyer what, until now, was only available to the concertgoer: the power of his emotionally charged music performed live. Harper seems to pour himself into these live performances, which usually more than makes up for the lack of engaging songs. All we can do is hope he gives the same effort to a Yale audience that has unfairly pegged him, at least in part, as “that dude who we got instead of Dave Matthews.”