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[Off The Record]
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Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals

A Ben Harper concert can be an underwhelming experience. The 32-year-old singer accompanies himself on an assortment of antique slide guitars, and that means he never leaves his chair. Despite the lack of visual excitement, Harper has become an impressive live draw, especially among the khaki-and-keg set, who appreciate his even-keeled mix of mellow political radicalism ( " Excuse Me Mr. " ), emotional vulnerability ( " Alone " ), and slide-guitar firepower.

The double-disc Live from Mars covers all these bases and a few more. Disc #1 is electric, and it’s heavy with full-bore rockers like " Woman in You " and " Ground on Down, " plus sunnier moments like the goofy " Steal My Kisses " and a cover of Marvin Gaye’s bedroom classic " Sexual Healing. " Disc #2 offers Harper’s sensitive singer/songwriter fare and shows off his folksy side. Harper’s range is impressive, but Live from Mars suffers from an overabundance of crowd noise (any intimate moment is immediately ruined by a barrage of catcalls and hoots from the audience) and Harper’s limited vocal powers. On the plus side, the guitar playing is fantastic throughout. The best moment here is " Ground on Down, " where Harper lets free with sky-scraping upper-register lines and bulldozing low-end riffs. But far too often he relies on strained falsetto crooning and histrionic wailing to get the point across.


Issue Date: May 10 - 16, 2001

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