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Ben Harper
Live From Mars
label: EMD / Virgin
released: 03.27.01
our score: 4.0 out of 5.0

Can I Get an Amen?
by: matt halverson

He may not be the first, but Ben Harper is the most recent minister to be ordained in the Church of Rock 'n Roll. His blistering hymns of blues, rock and southern soul and incendiary Weissenborn guitar-playing cast fire and brimstone down on non-believers, making it difficult not to join his congregation. With constant touring and a rapture-inducing stage show, Harper and his Innocent Criminals have built a grass-roots following much in the same way as other traveling minstrels like Dave Matthews Band and Phish. There is no substitute for seeing them sermonize in concert, but Live From Mars, the band's two-disc live set, comes close to capturing the experience.

Divided into electric and acoustic discs, Mars provides a glimpse of the many sides of Rev. Harper. At once a preacher, balladeer, folk singer and rock guitarist, he never seems comfortable committing to one guise. On the strength of 1999's Burn to Shine, their most commercially successful album to date, Harper and the Innocent Criminals went from being a good opening band to headlining their own tour and selling out venues, but here, through a collection of recordings from several years' worth of touring, we're treated to both pre- and post-mainstream success Ben.

By listening to the scorching "Ground on Down," it would be hard to believe Harper remains seated for the entirety of his shows, but he does. As hellfire and damnation erupt from his guitar, it's easy to picture him leaning out over the crowd with one foot propped on his amp. Instead, he's content to sit calmly before his congregation and let the wailing of his Weissenborn condemn them all. With "Faded," he keeps the fire raging for a ten-minute jam, even throwing in a verse or two of Zeppelin's "Whole Lot of Love" for the hell of it.

For all his searing guitar work, Harper still knows how to show his sensitive side. "Walk Away," the highlight of the acoustic disc, is one of the most heart-achingly beautiful love songs in recent memory. It wouldn't be a surprise to hear him break down crying here as he sings to a lost love. In the emotional middle, he can even have a little fun with "Steal My Kisses," calling on beatbox virtuoso Rahzel, who despite a short solo still finds new ways to impress, to funk the song up.

As if that wasn't enough, Harper drips sensuality while trying his hand at Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing," which has become a concert staple, and along the way he manages to teach today's watered-down "R&B" (and I use that term loosely) knock offs a thing or two. Even bassist Juan Nelson proves he has more soul in his guitar pick than Brian McKnight and K-Ci and Jojo combined as he sings the chorus.

Harper exhibits an impressive vocal range in the studio, but nothing like he does live. He screams ("Woman in You"), he wails ("Glory & Consequence"), and he croons ("Waiting on an Angel"), sometimes all in the same song ("Faded"). With a less diverse set of songs, the schizophrenic singing would be a little unnecessary, but the equally impressive range of musical stylings require appropriate vocals.

If nothing else, Harper deserves praise for pouring so much emotion into each of his songs. He plays every song as if wanting to make sure that night's crowd hears the best version yet. And in most cases, that's exactly what he does. But on Mars he does more than just shed the confines of the studio, he stands (ok, he sits) in front of his followers and preaches the power of rock 'n roll.