It seems fitting to be reviewing Ben Harper’s retrospective album By My Side as news filters through of the death of the immense Terry Callier, someone I’ve always likened Ben Harper to. Terry Callier had a voice that was instantly recognisable, so smooth, powerful and controlled. Just hearing his voice would put you at ease as his music enveloped you. He was also a master guitarist and was associated with simple sounding arrangements that gave pride of place to that voice. And he infused his music with folk, jazz, gospel, blues and in later life, when a slew of British musicians had “re-discovered” Terry and lured him away from his work at a university in Chicago, he collaborated with a wide range of artists. In many ways, Ben Harper is very similar. Now onto his eleventh album (plus a further three live ones) Harper’s voice is a seductive and pliable instrument equally at home singing folk inflected songs as more rock and roll numbers that he has turned too later in his career. He too has been prolific in his range of collaborators from Ringo Starr to Pearl Jam to the Blind Boys of Alabama whose collaboration earned them two GRAMMY Awards.
But on By My Side Harper has chosen to provide an overview of his career with a selection of his ballads, which is to be followed by his first ever acoustic tour in support of the album. By My Side starts, naturally, at the beginning. “Goodbye Cruel World” was Harper’s first release back in 1994 from which “Forever” is taken. Harper’s soft voice with hints of southern gospel oozes from the speakers as Ben seeks to have and give, everlasting love in this tender ballad.
Two tracks from my personal favourite Ben Harper album are next “By My Side” and “Gold To Me” from 1995’s Fight For Your Mind. “By My Side” features a gorgeous Hammond sounding organ as Harper croons “By my side / By my side / Won’t you be by my side”, a nod perhaps to Harper’s spiritual leanings while “Gold To Me” is an altogether rockier number with drums, percussion and Jaun Nelson’s southern fried bass picking backing Harper’s gospel delivery that reeks of righteous self recrimination.
This southern rock backdrop makes perfect sense as “Diamonds On The Inside”, from the album of the same name, kicks in. This is Gregg Allman and (solo) Gene Clark territory, a southern, country and rock mix that still sounds astonishingly contemporary despite being almost ten years old and points to the evolution in sound of Harper and his band The Innocent Criminals who have played such an important part in Harper’s music.
Harper is a consummate but underrated songwriter. Songs such as “Beloved One” from the Burn To Shine LP, piano, strings and Harpers pleading, yearning, whispering vocals recanting “We have both been here before / knocking upon love’s door / begging for someone to let us in / knowing this we can agree / to keep each other company” stand next to Cat Stevens or Simon & Garfunkel’s work. It is so hard to write consistently good, and some great, songs over an 18-year period and yet show no discernible deterioration in quality. Songs of love, redemption, spirituality, political activism, Harper, just like Terry Callier covers a wide breadth of topics yet holds and engages the listener by simple dint of voice and (mainly) guitar, his famous trademark Weissenborn.
This retrospective of ballads, selected by Harper himself, which also includes one completely new song, “Crazy Amazing”, a slow steel guitar influenced track, provides a great introduction for those new to Ben Harper. It also serves as a reminder, if one is needed, for those like me who have followed his career since the beginning, of the sheer quality and depth of his catalogue and the sequencing of the album allows for us to witness the ever upwards trajectory of this stellar songsmith.