Ben Harper was a young man with a serious, world-weary soul when he emerged in 1993, an artist who used a rare Hawaiian Weissenborn lap guitar and spiked his folk-blues with politics and spirituality. It seemed unlikely that the Claremont native's meditative sound would find its way beyond small clubs and a very small clutch of rare, fervent fans.
Playing the Hollywood Palladium on Friday, however, Harper showed off his brand-new bag: the distorted, amped-up sound of his 1997 album "The Will to Live," a record that smacks more of Jimi Hendrix than Blind Lemon Jefferson.
Restless yet mellow, the blend worked well for the crowd's Deadheads, surfers and suburban kids alike. Rarely rising from his seat, Harper wound his rich, airy Weissenborn around fine polyrhythmic percussion and the superb touch of bassist Juan Nelson. He proved that he still has the power to uplift and soothe despite real drawbacks in this new incarnation.
Kicking off with the frazzled rock-blues of "Faded" and through to the Bob Marley-esque "Jah Work," Harper's songs paid too much homage. , bearing the obvious stamp of each hero and losing some of the intensely personal flavor of his earlier music. The familiarity may have won him radio play and the ability to nearly sell out the Palladium, but it also makes him smack a little more of Lenny Kravitz, a little less of Ben Harper.
Clearly, however, Harper's potential hasn't been completely tapped yet, as evidenced by his beautifully understated "Like a King," a tribute to Martin Luther King, and his sumptuous rendition of Marvin Gaye's classic "Sexual Healing." There aren't many artists who would share a stage with the ghosts of country blues, Gaye, Rastafarians and King. For his ability to do so with grace and gravity, Harper deserves praise--and our attention.