Ben Harper may look like a hipster jazzbo who just stepped out of a Gap khakis ad, but don't let appearances fool you: This guy is a stone-cold hippie, and the vast majority of his sizable and growing following hails from the Grateful Dead/H.O.R.D.E./Phish school. This is to say, the stench of patchouli and five-buck cigars hangs heavy in any room where he's playing, wafting all the way from the artfully draped chair from which Harper works his six-string magic to the back of the venue, where Randy of the Redwoods is rolling another one with his day-trader pals. Thankfully, two factors distinguish Harper from the majority of the H.O.R.D.E. crowd. For one, he refuses to meander musically -- there's precious little wankery in this boy's mix of Delta blues, Caribbean limbo music, Big Chill soul, and James Taylor folk-rock. For another, drummer Dean Butterworth rarely loses the all-important backbeat, generally avoiding those annoying and ubiquitous hippie shuffle grooves. (Sorry, kids, but it's hard to twirl to Harper's music.)
The other Innocent Criminals are guiltier of excess: Rotund bassist Juan Nelson and frenetic percussionist David Leach both hint at the potential to spiral off into 20-minute Dave Matthews Band violin-solo territory, which is always an ugly thing. And with Burn to Shine, his fourth album for Virgin Records, Harper emulates Matthews himself -- but in another way, mucking around with tarted-up power ballads such as "Steal My Kisses." It's hardly a development worth celebrating, even if the yuppie-hippies are eating it up (especially the women, who seem to find Harper, well, dreamy, in a Gap-khakis-ad sort of way).
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It's a disappointing development, because at his most inspired -- in his noisier, bluesier moments -- the 30-year-old Californian has shown he has the potential to extend one of the great unexplored avenues of Jimi Hendrix's legacy, i.e., the Martian-metal blues of "Red House." The best Ben Harper remains the one who summons up great gales of white noise and powerful gusts of feedback on his Weissenborn lap steel and Rickenbacker "frying pan," sitting in that silly chair and displaying a bare minimum of guitar-hero theatrics while thoroughly blowing your mind, man. Jim DeRogatis