The rising star’s name is Ben Harper, and he is being called a compilation of the immortals: Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, and Bob Dylan. Interested? You should be. While this description is accurate, the style and humble grace of this artist may transcend that of his predecessors.
Burn to Shine, released in the summer of ‘99, is the fourth album from Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals, and it displays a great expanse of influences mixed in startlingly innovative ways. His definitive down-home sound, if tilled, would be riddled with the roots of rock, folk, country, hip-hop, soul, and of course the blues. He sows the sounds into his music with creative use of the lap slide guitar, rigged to deliver anything from the warm wail of a Hendrix jam, to the laid back persona of a James Taylor ballad. Accompanied by a soulful and sweet voice that hearkens back to a pre-Koran Cat Stevens, the music gives out the vibe of complete brotherly love, able to give you ample time to bond with your CD player.
Among the best on the album is the driving durge, “Please Bleed,” complete with heartfelt lyrics and mutating rhythms. “The Woman in You” exposes a softer side, while “Steal My Kisses” takes us to a bouncier, happier place. The clarinet and horn solos (care of The Real Time Jazz Band) on “Suzie Blue” hearken to the ragtime days of New Orleans, while the title track Burn to Shine was born to be played in every smoky bar in America. In effect, every song has a completely different feel to it allowing Ben to sneak away from having his music labeled.
The Innocent Criminals (bassist Juan Nelson, drummer Dean Butterworth and percussionist David Leach), absolutely exude experience neither guiding nor following the rapid transitions of Harper, but simply fleshing out and adding to his style with sounds that are similarly fragmented in root. Longtime fans need not be converted. This is a solid album built well upon the sturdy foundations of his previous three efforts: Welcome to the Cruel World (1994), Fight for Your Mind (1995), and my personal favorite Will to Live (1997). Ben Shines in his own God-fearing way on Burn to Shine. The best introduction, though, is undoubtedly a live performance. He soars on stage even though he never stands (thanks to the lap slide), and his music is more like a handshake or a hug welcoming you into his world, than it is entertainment.