Ben Harper & Ellen Harper
(21 Apr 2014: Rockwood Music Hall New York, NY)
Although I had no idea Ben Harper’s mother Ellen was also musically inclined, it was not a surprise to hear that was the case or that they have recorded a folksy album together called Childhood Home due out next month. At Rockwood Music Hall on a Monday night, people queued up for over an hour (even though everyone’s names were on the private invite list) to catch the mother and son team perform the entirety of the album on the tiny stage, plus a bonus song that Harper had to refer to the lyrics for. I’ve only heard the material once but the music and the stories are twinged with nostalgia, heart and politics.
They opened with “House is a Home”, the lead track on the album (maybe they played it in sequence?) that is a pleasing sound that will have you tapping along even if the lyrics leave you feeling uncertain if a house can really be a home if your heart no longer has ties there. “Born to Love” has been performed live before by the two and it’s a timeless ode that does not confine love to any relationship, so it will likely be a slow-dance song for many weddings to come. My favorite moment was when Ellen picked up a banjo for “Farmer’s Daughter”, which I presumed would be another homely tale, but turned out to be a powerful, political rally cry against Monsanto, Dupont and Dow Chemical for genetically modifying and patenting our basic sustenance and against banks for stealing the metaphoric farm through foreclosure.
In between songs, Ben and Ellen spoke about her grand-mother who passed away peacefully at 103 and a guitar he possessed that was nearly as old as her. In relating the story, Ben cursed and then quickly and humorously apologized for speaking that way in front of his mother before saying “this is gonna be a rough tour” and joking that he doesn’t drink. Ellen replied she hasn’t had to send him to his room fortunately. The strong relationship between the two has helped them create an album that isn’t tied to them. Childhood Home is filled with evocative stories that deserve repeated listen and should have universal appeal.