THE FIRST time Ben Harper came to Lisbon, he performed to a few hundred people at Lisbon University’s Aula Magna. Ten years on, Harper is set to return to Portugal for the ninth time, this time at Lisbon’s premier venue, Pavilhão Atlântico. It has been a remarkable rise for the star, who has worked tirelessly on the tour circuit since he achieved his first taste of the limelight in 1994, with his debut release Welcome to the Cruel World. Harper attained cult status during the course of the 90s, but, by the turn of the century, he was gaining much wider attention and had attracted a very solid fan base.
A native of California, Harper grew up listening to blues, folk, soul, R&B and, in particular, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley. As a child, he started playing guitar and began to perform regularly. He slowly turned towards acoustic slide guitar, which would eventually become his signature instrument. After steady gigging in Los Angeles, Harper scored a deal with Virgin Records in 1992. His style has since been described as a combination of “shuddering, groove-laden funky soul and folky handcrafted acoustics”.
Harper’s third album, 1997’s The Will to Live, pushed his blues-oriented alternative folk into music’s mainstream. It was on the supporting tour that he joined forces with The Innocent Criminals, a band which has collaborated with Harper on tour and in the studio ever since.
Harper’s career gained momentum when he played the 1997 and 1999 Tibetan Freedom Concerts, and opened for R.E.M., Radiohead, Metallica, Pearl Jam and the Fugees on their respective world tours. In 1999, Harper released his most successful album to date, Burn to Shine, an album that blended his fondness of 1920s jazz compositions and urban beat box, resulting in a clever and passionate collection of songs, including his most famous single Steal My Kisses, the success of which landed him two headlining world tours and an opening spot for the Dave Matthews Band. In spring 2001, Harper issued Live from Mars, a double disc of live electric and acoustic material spanning the previous year’s tour, also including covers of material by Led Zeppelin, the Verve and Marvin Gaye.
When it came to recording his fifth studio effort, Harper went back to the drawing board. He had travelled the world countless times, which drove him to sing about it on Diamonds on the Inside, in 2003. The album was an intricate combination of world styles with obvious homage to Bob Marley, Lenny Kravitz and Bob Dylan. It spawned the European hit single With My Own Two Hands, a song which has held residence on Portuguese airwaves ever since.
After a European tour with the legendary gospel force, the Blind Boys of Alabama, in 2004, the two acts entered the studio together and laid down 10 tracks in two different sessions at Capitol Records’ basement studios. The resulting collaborative album, There Will Be a Light, won two Grammy awards.
Harper’s most recent album, Both Sides of the Gun, was released in March 2006 and reached number seven on the Billboard album charts. Divided into two different CDs of hard and soft music, it shows a very different quality to Ben Harper’s musicianship.
Harper offers his signature mix of rock, soul and folk music, while also venturing into new territory. “I was hoping I could come back to the root of my earlier records, the sparseness and intimacy,” he says, “and also branch out further in a produced sound than ever before.”
In the dozen years since his first record, Harper has established himself as one of the world’s most versatile and hardworking musicians. The high expectations of his loyal fan base drive Harper to keep on producing and performing in new and innovative ways. “Expectations are there for a reason,” he says, “to be surpassed.”
Ben Harper plays Lisbon’s Pavilhão Atlântico on October 4. Tickets are available from Pavilhão Atlântico, El Corte Inglés, Fnac, Post offices and Agências ABEP. Visit www.musicanocoracao.pt or www.benharper.com for more information.