Ben Harper is a diamond on the inside

    Ben Harper likes to stay true to his roots. He’ll pass up a Stratocaster — the quintessential rock guitar — for his acoustic Weissenborn, a hollow-neck slide number that is the Harper trademark. But, as roots grow, so has Harper’s music.

    Courtesy of Virgin Records

    His fifth studio release, Diamonds on the Inside, samples in the music of decades past. The Zepplin-esque heavy sound is intertwined with traditional African music, funk and reggae. Add Harper’s voice-turned-instrument, and you have Diamonds.

    Harper will perform April 25 in promotion of Diamonds on the Inside at University of San Diego.

    Harper was born in 1969 and grew up in Claremont, Calif., a suburb 60 miles east of Los Angeles. Grandma and Grandpa Harper ran a folk-music store, and the East Indian tablas, banjos and sitars that Harper discovered there became his after-school life. Eventually, he began to work for the store, but when surrounded by music available to every fingertip, it was hardly a nine-to-five to complain about.

    Before long, music’s influence in his young life began to manifest itself as performances as Harper grew older. Before long, Harper was performing coffeehouse series’ in Los Angeles, catching the ears of the music industry.

    Virgin Records came knocking and signed Harper after seeing him perform with Taj Mahal and great bluesman Brownie McGhee.

    And thus began the Harper musical evolution.

    In 1994, he debuted Welcome to the Cruel World and was critically recognized by the articulate picture of urban oppression he painted. The 1995 release Fight for Your Mind spawned his first world tour. Apparently being on tour wasn’t enough work for Harper because the material for his 1997 release, The Will to Live was recorded while on the road. The album stayed true to Harper’s evolutionary formula and was his most diverse, mature record to that date, showcasing bluesy shuffles, jazzy up-tempos and reggae rhythms.

    The next release, Burn to Shine was commercially driven by radio hit “”Steal My Kisses.”” This album did nothing to mask the musical influences — Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix glaringly coming to mind — but was all about turning them inside out to create a Harper meaning and sound.

    Somewhere in the midst of all this musical Darwinism, Harper founded Inland Emperor Records, a vestige of the Inland Empire music scene. It is in this scene that Harper met musician Patrick Brayer. Later, Brayer collaborated with Harper on “”The Will to Live”” and became Inland Emperor’s debut artist. Harper himself was also collaborating as he built his own discography, playing slide guitar on Jack Johnson’s “”Brushfire Fairytales.””

    And then, there came Diamonds on the Inside.

    For 15 years, the Harper musical mixture has garnered a doggedly loyal international following. Diamonds, a 52 minute schooling of musical worlds, will no doubt please his fan base and convert those nonfollowers.

    “”My Own Two Hands,”” the first radio release, has obvious reggae roots. While the lyrics do not deviate much from the title of the song, Harper gets credit for using a clarinet in the song.

    “”Amen Omen”” sounds so personal, listening to it lends a voyeuristic feel. A piano guides the track, while the strumming of the guitar is so brutal — seemingly out of frustration over losing someone — that it is easy to hear the finger hitting the strings. Harper’s voice is hungry, the kind that gives so much emotion that if there was any more, he would be unable to sing.

    While there are decidedly spiritual cuts, they are not pious. “”Blessed to Be a Witness”” and “”Picture of Jesus”” both have a raw, primal sound. Voices become instruments and lyrics become secondary on both tracks.

    The last track on the album gives definite closure to Diamonds on the Inside. If there was ever a musical epilogue to an album, this is it. One only has to wonder what the next installment of the Harper musical catalogue will bring.

    Harper plays April 25 at the USD Jenny Craig Pavilion at 8 p.m. For further information call (619) 260-4600. This show is a precursor to a summer tour with Jack Johnson, which as of press time, will not visit San Diego. The chance to see Harper perform is now.

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