Ben Harper’s live release captures the glory

Ben Harper and The Innocent Criminals
Live From Mars
Virgin Records

The live album has long been a requisite release for the touring artist who thrives in the live environment. Ben Harper is a singer/songwriter/bandleader who has slowly built a following due to his sensitive songs, stage presence and rocking live show with The Innocent Criminals.

He may be the first performer in history to captivate a stadium without ever standing up. He sits through most of his sets, often skillfully playing a lap steel guitar. His albums and shows have become faves among a wide group of people, many of whom are fans of a man who he’s compared to and has influenced, Dave Matthews.

Having songs about weed, Jah, being a good-looking black man and doing rip-roaring Hendrix covers has also helped him.

Harper has just released his first double live set Live From Mars fresh on the heels of last year’s Burn To Shine, his best commercial release to date.

The question to ask about the album is, does it represent the live sound of Harper and his great band? The answer is yes and no. The first disc is Harper and the band, rocking and grooving like they do. There are some extended cuts, but most fall within album length while maintaining the power and spontaneity of a live performance.

The second disc is Harper doing his solo acoustic stuff. Herein lies a problem. His solo acoustic stuff is great; it’s sensitive, well-executed and irresistible thanks to his tender voice and emotive lyrics (I used to watch my single drunk roommate cry while listening to “Waiting on An Angel” and “Another Lonely Day”). But it shouldn’t be the only material on a second live disc.

Harper usually does a couple acoustic cuts per show, if at all. A second full-length disc that’s all acoustic doesn’t represent. It would be nice to have a second set featuring the band and maybe a handful of acoustic cuts placed in between some of the barn burners.

Some of the acoustic numbers on disc two, like “Roses From My Friends” and “Please Bleed,” would be good to hear with the band, similar to how they appear on the studio album.

Conversely, on the first disc, a shorter acoustic rendition of some tracks like “Woman In You,” would be better than the eight minute version with the band.Another thing missing is the Juan Nelson feature. Often during shows, bassist Nelson takes a solo, then leads the band through a jam or a rendition of a funky ass cover. Why not put this in?

There are still some good cover tunes on Mars though. Harper knows that people secretly like to hear a cover or two of songs they have always loved. He’s done Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” at so many shows it’s a surprise it’s not on this set. Maybe he’s trying to phase it out and make way for others like the two included on disc one: Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” and Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.”

Sense a theme? Harper may be one of the only performers able to pull off covers like those and seem totally sincere and sound great.

Harper knows how to write a good song and pull it off live. “Forgiven” slowly builds and gives goose bumps at it’s climax. Guest human beatboxers Nick Rich and The Root’s Rahzel freshen up the pop hit “Steal My Kisses.” One of the best things about the album is that “Glory and Consequence” and “Excuse Me Mr.,” two of his best songs from B sides of older discs, kick this live set off.

Harper fans will no doubt pick this double set up, and indeed they should. This is also a good mix and introduction for newcomers to check out as well.