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Ben Harper turns sound checks into soul

Technically speaking, Ben Harper’s new record, “Lifeline,” was recorded during a single lively week in the artist’s home base of Paris. But it was born during two months’ worth of sound checks on a European tour by Harper and his band the Innocent Criminals.
/ Source: Billboard

Technically speaking, Ben Harper’s new record, “Lifeline,” was recorded during a single lively week in the artist’s home base of Paris. But it was born during two months’ worth of sound checks on a European tour by Harper and his band the Innocent Criminals.

“It all hit me in a split second,” Harper says. He explains that he was “basically tired of mundane sound checks. We were at the end of an eight-month run, about to start a two-month tour, and I thought, ‘We own our own sound system, amps, speakers — everything you want when you’re bringing music to life. But when you get to sound check, you’re playing the same material. This can’t stand.”’

So Harper and his band hatched a plan: Each member would come to sound check with song ideas that they would refine before the show. “The operative term was ‘acoustic soul,”’ Harper says of the record’s framework. “‘Soul’ meaning anything from Motown to Blind Willie Johnson. And we said, ‘What do you got? Throw it out.”’

Post-tour, the band unloaded directly into Studio Gang in Paris, where it recorded “Lifeline” — due Aug. 28 on Virgin — with enviable efficiency.

“It’s always been a dream of mine to make a record in Paris,” Harper says. “And it’s been a lifelong ambition to record right off the road — to get that raw, nasty sort of dazed, lethargic emotional release from the end of a tour on a record.”

One could argue that Harper’s history casts him as the missing link between man and mixtape; previous albums, especially 2006’s double-header “Both Sides of the Gun” and 2003’s “Diamonds on the Inside,” were as likely to find him digging around in groove rock as in flight-worthy anthems and rubbery funk. (A 2004 album with the Blind Boys of Alabama indulged his gospel interests as well.)

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But “Lifeline” finds Harper and his Innocent Criminals — drummer Oliver Charles, percussionist Leon Mobley, bassist Juan Nelson, guitarist Michael Ward and keyboardist Jason Yates — at their most thematically united. Though there are tastes of gravel-road blues (“Needed You Tonight”), gospel (“Say You Will”), soulful anthems (“Heart of Matters”) and subtle but sharp calls to arms (“Fight Outta You”), there’s a certain organic unity to its sound.

Harper will spend much of the rest of 2007 bringing “Lifeline” to the road. He already has recorded an edition of XM Satellite Radio’s “Artist Confidential” series (which will appear as a DVD bonus on a special edition of “Lifeline”) and an episode of Sirius Satellite Radio’s “World Cafe.”

This summer, the artist will play a handful of U.S. festivals, including Lollapalooza  Aug. 3 in Chicago and the Virgin Festival in Baltimore the following day. In the fall, he and the Innocent Criminals will descend on specially chosen theaters.

“We’re trying to choose ornate theaters across the country, like Radio City Music Hall,” Harper says.