A six-foot-three-inch man with long, dirty, blond hair has his arms wrapped around Ben Harper. The man's eyes are closed and his face is damp with sweat. It's several seconds before he releases Harper from his clutches.
"Dude," the man says, "that show was truly spiritual."
Harper pulls back a little and looks the man squarely in the face.
"Thanks. It means a lot to hear that."
A version of this scene will be repeated a dozen times in the next twenty minutes as Harper negotiates his way back to his tour bus after a recent performance at a festival in Atlanta. Almost no one shakes his hand -- everyone hugs him.
"I've noticed that, actually," Harper says later. "At first I didn't know if I was initiating it or not, so I tried to stand back and see what happened. And I was getting hugs."
In fact, this scene has been playing itself out with increasing regularity since the release of Harper's debut, Welcome to the Cruel World
, back in 1993. It's hard to say exactly why, but Harper's songs -- which over the course of his first three albums have ranged from gentle, acoustic folk and blues to blazing, Hendrixian guitar workouts -- seem to pierce deep, hidden nerves that few performers can even locate. His wide-ranging, soulful voice has the conviction of a preacher, and whether he testifies about fading loves or social ills, he does it in a language that's arresting.
His latest sermon on the mount, Burn to Shine
, is his most ambitious and complex yet. On it, Harper probes into the darker side of his own psyche, examining the failures, insecurities and disappointments that come hand-in-hand with even the best relationships. While past records overflowed with good vibrations, Burn
recognizes (as its title suggests) that sometimes the only path to the light at the end of the tunnel is through a raging inferno.
"I'm not a negative cat," Harper contends. "I've been far more militant in my life and it hasn't gotten me anywhere. But I'm down for expressing negativity to get to a positive place."
Besides being Harper's most revealing and personal record to date, Burn
is also his most eclectic. He swaggers like Lynyrd Skynyrd on the title track, dabbles in Dixieland jazz on "Suzie Blue," flirts with calypso and hip-hop on "Steal My Kisses," and rocks so hard on "Less" that when he shared the stage with the likes of Metallica, Sepultura, Ministry and Marilyn Manson recently at a British metal festival, no one blinked.
"Writing-wise, I really feel like I'm just scratching the surface of my own ability," Harper says. "I want to be able to write social commentary, love songs, lust songs, lost songs, pain, joy -- I want to be a rounded songwriter and this is the beginning of that, really."
Still, the record will undoubtedly come as a surprise to those who've gotten used to Harper's distinctive brand of soul music -- which is fine with him, even if it means getting fewer post-show embraces.
"I refuse to make the same record twice," he says. "Once you get an audience that supports what you do, it's your responsibility to challenge what they like. If you keep walking in and out of the same door, it's gonna get boring."
Written by DAVID PEISNER for RollingStone.com News