The Kokua Festival, organized by Jack Johnson, includes, clockwise from top left, Ben Harper, Paula Fuga, Willie Nelson, Henry Kapono and Johnson.
Musician still strong going into Kokua Fest
It wouldn't be a surprise to see Ben Harper at the Waikiki Shell both days this weekend -- performing at Saturday's Kokua Festival and checking out reggae star Damian Marley's gig on Sunday.
A benefit for the Kokua Hawai'i Foundation
Featuring: Jack Johnson, Willie Nelson & the Planetary Bandits, Ben Harper, Henry Kapono, Paula Fuga & the One Love 'Ohana Band, and ALO
Place: Waikiki Shell
Time: 4 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: Sold out
The two roots music singers are touring the mainland together starting in August. Both share a gift for impassioned vocals and upbeat lyricism. In the meantime, Harper and fellow guitarist Michael Ward from his Innocent Criminals band will be fest guests Saturday, playing both fan favorites and new material from Harper's most recent album, the two-CD "Both Sides of the Gun."
Divided between discs of quiet ballads and harder-hitting tunes, the album continues Harper's run of strong albums that started with 2003's "Diamonds on the Inside" and 2004's inspired collaboration with gospel greats the Blind Boys of Alabama, "There Will Be a Light."
Speaking by cell phone from Maui on Monday, Harper said he was pleased that the album's one-take vocals and immediate-sounding musicianship replicated the energy he's known for in concert.
"I wanted it to be as rough and rude as possible, and as open and airy in feel as well," he said. "I wanted people to feel that space between the notes and the songs."
That can be found in the down-home funk of the title track, the angry, post-Katrina response of "Black Rain," and the powerhouse band interplay of "Serve Your Soul." On the flip side, Harper has put together an effective bunch of ballads, highlighted by the lovely "Morning Yearning," the rich "Reason to Mourn," the vulnerability of "More Than Sorry" and one of his best songs to date, "Happy Everafter."
"I haven't done too many acoustic shows, but with the promotion of this album, it seems to work well in stripped-down arrangements, particularly when I go to radio stations to play," Harper said, armed with his familiar Weissenborn slide guitar.
His association with Jack Johnson is friendly and sincere. "Jack used to come to my shows in southern California and other stops. He's from such an influential surf group (the Moonshine Conspiracy), and it was always great to do a backstage hang with him and the Malloy brothers. We became friends, and he passed on a demo tape to me and (manager/producer) J.P. Plunier. When we heard it, J.P. and I both agreed that it was incredible, so much so that J.P. wanted to work with him. You know, a real player doesn't turn down a real song."
The resulting album, Johnson's debut "Brushfire Fairytales," included Plunier's production work and Harper guesting on guitar. Johnson's popularity as a musical act grew, and the rest is history.
But before Johnson's own career soared, he opened for Harper for about a year. And when it came time for Johnson's work on the "Curious George" soundtrack, the friends did a lullaby-like revision of Harper's "With My Own Two Hands."
HARPER FEELS that he got a clearer vision of how his latest album would come together after working with the Blind Boys of Alabama. In his latest bio, Harper is quoted as saying, "Before the Blind Boys, I used to sing. With and after the Blind Boys, I may have become a singer.
"I think we were on a crash course to get together since I was born," Harper further explained. "I've wanted to work with them for ages, and it finally came to pass. It was originally just a production gig for me, scheduled for four days. But we ended up doing half a record, so we just kept going.
"I felt I was put in a situation of sink-or-swim. This was a little different situation for me, so it was time to step up your game. I wanted to assimilate, just not sit in with them. I wanted to become the member of the sound that they've established over six decades."