Singer-songwriter Ben Harper returned to his hometown of Claremont, Calif. to perform in Bridges Auditorium at Pomona College on Wednesday, Nov. 6.
Sharon Kuhn, events manager at Bridges Auditorium, chose to bring Harper to campus based on his previous success at Pomona.
“We’ve had him here a couple of times before, [and he’s] always done well,” Kuhn said. “He speaks to the student population as well as the community. He’s just a great performer, and we always do very well with him. And he loves playing his hometown.”
Because the show took place in Harper’s hometown, a unique community atmosphere pervaded the auditorium throughout the performance.
“It was such a community event. There’s so many homies in the audience, and they were all just interacting with each other. You could tell that so many people knew each other,” Beatriz Stambuk PZ ’14 said.
Harper’s maternal grandparents, Charles and Dorothy Chase, opened the Claremont Folk Music Center in the Claremont Village in 1958. Harper grew up in Claremont and recently bought the center, wishing to keep it in the family. His mother, Ellen Chase-Verdries, is its current manager.
Dorothy Chase played banjo, guitar, mandolin, autoharp, hammered dulcimer, mountain dulcimer, and a little bit of recorder. Charles, on the other hand, did not play any instruments, but repaired them while his wife gave music lessons.
Chase-Verdries followed in her mother’s musical footsteps: She plays guitar, banjo, ukulele, and autoharp, and she was also a bass player. Harper grew up surrounded by his family’s music and by the artists who wandered into the Folk Music Center. Chase-Verdries attributed his interest in music to this environment.
“I was a single mom, so he would come here [to the center] pretty much after school, weekends, and hang out ‘cause I was working, and I think he just absorbed a lot of it,” Chase-Verdries said. “It was in his environment, everywhere. I used to play in bands, and he used to go hang out with us all the time.”
She also recalled one specific moment when she realized her son might have a career as a musician.
“I know at one point … he put on a little concert here with [American multi-instrumentalist] David Lindley, and David picked up the weissenborn and played it and it was like this orchestra just filled the room, and I saw his eyes light up, and I thought, ‘Oh boy.’ Something just struck him,” Chase-Verdries said.
During the performance, Harper recounted another particular moment from his youth when he noticed early signs of his potential. In fifth grade, he had to learn a song in one day to audition for choir. He sang the first line of the Beatles’ “With A Little Help From My Friends,” and his teacher’s eyes popped. To explain this reaction to the Claremont audience, Harper said frankly, “You’re not here ‘cause I suck, and I’m not here ‘cause I suck.”
Harper’s various musical styles range from reggae to blues, country to rock, and jazz to folk. In 1994, he released his first album, Welcome to the Cruel World, whose songs primarily convey social and political messages.
After frequently playing sparsely attended shows at familiar venues like Pomona’s Coop Fountain, Scripps College’s Motley Coffeehouse, and Pitzer College’s Grove House, Harper said he finally knew he could have a career in music when he walked into the Folk Music Center and heard a stranger picking out the guitar chords to “Another Lonely Day,” a song off his sophomore album Fight For Your Mind.
More recent albums have further explored blues, jazz, electric, and worldbeat sounds. Harper has also played and recorded with musicians such as the Blind Boys of Alabama and Ringo Starr. Harper’s latest album, Get Up!, is a fiery, powerful collaboration with blues and harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite.
This collaboration seems to have influenced Harper’s latest work: As part of the encore during the show at Bridges, he played two of his newest songs, “Trying Not to Fall in Love With You” and “I Trust You to Dig My Grave,” both of which felt significantly more bluesy and soulful than his earlier work.
After a fantastic performance and encore, Harper’s second encore contained some of the most memorable moments of the show. First, he called his mother onstage to play two songs from My Childhood Home, an album Harper and Chase-Verdries recorded together due to be released on Mother’s Day in 2014.
Following those tearjerkers, Harper casually mentioned his relationship with Leonard Cohen, a Folk Music Center frequenter, and sang a beautiful rendition of Cohen’s masterpiece “Hallelujah.”
The biggest audience reaction, however, came during the pro-marijuana song “Burn One Down,” one of Harper’s more incendiary works. He said in the middle of the song, “I’m not gonna take all the credit, but I’d like to think I played a small role in California’s liberal stance.”
Despite Harper’s frequent humorous comments and comic storytelling prowess, his honesty and generous spirit shone through.
“I think that Ben Harper really gave the audience what they wanted and really spoke from the heart, which I feel like is not expected in many famous musicians nowadays,” said Celina Frelinghuysen, a University of Southern California student who attended the concert.
Harper’s show left Camille Matonis PZ ’15 with a feeling of Claremont pride.
“I just want to say ‘bliss,’ because I felt like Ben Harper delivered a pretty ideal concert experience. He’s an incredible musician and makes me proud to be living in Claremont right now,” Matonis said.
As Harper said during the performance, “I’ve always figured home is where you run from—and then run to.” As audience members, we can only hope he keeps running back home to share his music with us in Claremont.