Endurance as protest
The Will to Live
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Neither Taj Mahal nor Ben Harper could really be considered bluesmen in the traditional sense, although the blues forms the core of each one's vision. Mahal has traveled along the roots of American music since the late '60s, steadily putting out albums tracing the African Diaspora across the hemisphere. Ben Harper has stayed closer to home; in his narrative voice is found the passion of Gil Scott-Heron, a curator's awareness of the past, and the single-mindedness of a missionary. It's the voice of a believer, wandering America and the world, looking for answers.
Although some of the songs on Will are beautiful acoustic forays, Harper is one of the most gifted electric/slide guitar stylists since David Lindley, conjuring up tones as dirty and greasy as the fly-specked pane in a juke joint window. The paths he follows are as simple and direct as a cowpath, prone to groove yet full of finesse and inspiration. In his faster parts the world seems to buzz dauntingly--still a ball of confusion, but now spinning many times faster. Against this assault Harper keeps looking for understanding, help, some way to make a difference. His voice--sometimes imploring, sometimes resigned--floats against the harsh instrumentation, which freely adopts both hip-hop beats and Indian strings. Harper is a fatalist who must stay in the world, doing "Jah Work" but unable to fool himself--"I'm more afraid of falling/Than I am of flying high." He yearns to finally be ready, to "put on his long white robe."
Taj Mahal, on the other hand, seems to have figured out that nothing soothes the soul quite like some upbeat--or at least pretty--music and a dance or two. Senor Blues finds Taj scratching his soul-man itch in numbers like "Think," an old soul hit that swings from a braying sax line. As a result, Senor is full of flavors from about 70 years ago--barrel-house tack piano, Beale Street horns, and sawdust floors--much like early Randy Newman. While the title track veers damn close to jazz, on "Lord, Things is Gettin' Crazy up in Here," he uncorks a gospel percolator that would be at home in a tent revival; 1929's "You Rascal You" swings and jumps. Harper, however, is still too haunted to swing like that--it's as if he sees the ghosts of the future whenever he closes his eyes. The spirits freak him out, and it'll be a while before he can sing the happy songs like Taj, who--as ever--remains satisfied and tickled, too. Perhaps Mahal has already met those shades.